“What is so dreadful is that to transform the traumatic we must re-enter it fully and allow the full weight of grief to pass through our hearts. It is not possible to digest atrocity without tasting it first, without assessing on our tongues the full bitterness of it.”
― Aurora Levins Morales, Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity
Upon entering Poland, I spent my first day at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I needed to bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust at the largest Nazi death and concentration camp, in which…
1.1 million people were systematically murdered, asphyxiated in gas chambers or claimed by starvation, torture, hanging, medical experimentation, shooting, beating, exhaustion or disease.
960,000 were Jews
74,000 were ethnic Poles
21,000 were Romas
15,000 were Soviet prisoners of war
15,000 were other Europeans from Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Hungary…
Over 200,000 of them were children.
I carried an ancient, fossilized stone from the Moravian Karst in my right hand, to rub along the way, needing the tangible presence of deep time to help me absorb the pain of this history. I called upon the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen to accompany me on the 6 ½ hour walking tour of death and memory.
Breathing in, I open my heart to the suffering.
Breathing out, I offer presence, compassion, healing.
Breathe in, suffering.
Breathe out, loving presence.
Walking through the museum with my English-speaking group, headsets on, I could see that the guide was tired, having told this story perhaps thousands of times, over and over, day after day, group after group, repeating these stories of unspeakable atrocities, in service to our collective memory. I asked her how long she had been working as a guide. She said, “too long.” I breathed in the tired and bitter, seeking to allow the full weight of her grief, and my own, to pass through my heart. I breathed out prayers that her heart could still feel the tender. At the end of the tour, she implored us to love deeper. My eyes filled with tears, so grateful for her tired, tender heart and for all those who choose to remember, so that we humans, may heal.
Auschwitz – Birkenau is mind-boggling in its enormity. In its scale of brutality. It was one of 44,000 concentration camps, a network spread across Europe, but it was the largest.
Two tons of hair on display, from 40,000 people. Hair that was shorn from heads and bodies upon entry. Hair that was taken from the heads of corpses immediately after their removal from the gas chambers. Hair that was systematically cured in lofts and gathered in twenty-kilogram bales. Hair that was marketed and sold to German companies, to become cars, textiles, and profit.
Belongings. People came with bags, packed for an unknown destination. They came with combs, shaving kits, cooking pots, precious photographs, never imagining…
The piles upon piles of shoes. Worn out shoes, that one day hoped to carry their owners to a better future, where they could dream and play and run and walk to work or home or to the corner for bread.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”
– Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor, Night
The line drawings made by children, their testimonies of terror, their innocence lost. Heart-broken, taking in the massive depths of torment, depicted by their tiny hands, calling in all the benevolent ancestors to walk with them, to scoop them up and cradle them with love.
The large and endless books of names, remembering each sacred name.
The barbed wire, piercing the sky, encircling freedom.
The train tracks through the gates of hell.
The prison barracks, the death wall, the ruins of crematoriums.
On the memorial of ashes, I placed a wax rose and put down prayers.
Breathing in, breathing out.
Soaking in the photographs of their lives before.
Looking into their eyes.
Taking in every face that I could.
Bearing witness also to their joy and dignity, their vitality and hope.
The charnel grounds of Birkenau are covered with green grass and fields of thistle. Milk thistle, used for over 2,000 years to draw out toxins, to support the liver, to heal and regenerate. Growing wild here, perhaps nature is helping us to digest this atrocity, reminding us, as Aurora Levins Morales does in the passage below, to craft beauty out of the broken, to use what you are. To become medicine.
“Milk Thistle teaches guerilla warfare. Adaptogen milagrosa, Milk Thistle works with what is here, the yellow layers of toxins, the charcoal grit, the green bile slow as crude oil pooling in the liver’s reservoirs, waiting to learn to flow. Milk Thistle says take what you are and use it. She’s a junkyard artist, crafting beauty out of the broken. She’s a magician, melting scar tissue into silk. She’s a miner, fingering greasy lumps of river clay for emeralds. She can enter the damaged cells of your life and recreate your liver from a memory of health. She can pass her hands over this torn and stained tapestry of memory and show us beauty, make the threads gleam with the promise of something precious gained. She will not flinch from anything you have done to keep yourself alive. Give it to me, she will say. I will make it into something new. She will show you your courage, hammered to a dappled sheen by use. She will remind you that you took yourself over and over to the edge of what you knew. She will remind you that the world placed limits on your powers. That you were not omnipotent. That some of the choices you made were not choices. Use what you are, she says again and again, insistent. You are every step of your journey, you are everything that has touched you, you are organic and unexpected. Use what you are.”
― Aurora Levins Morales, Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertoriqueñas