How has my life changed—Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat, by Vivi Letsou

When I arrived at our Auschwitz “Bearing Witness Retreat” in Krakow/Polland, on November 2, 2015, I met people in this large group of  “Zen Peacemakers” who have been coming to this retreat for five, ten or even 20 years.  Everyone told me pretty much the same thing: “My life was changed here,” or, “Your life will never be the same again.”  Upon my return to Athens, talking to my yoga class, I heard the same words coming from my mouth.

To be able to “bear witness” to this place of extreme human pain, death, torture and suffering while being supported to feel all that your heart is able to, in the spirit of “metta,” compassion, is indeed the most life-changing experience.  Our group of 120 people from over 20 countries has spent a week in the concentration camps of Auschwitz.  First came the tour through the camp sites and buildings, the historical facts, the photographs, sightings of art/sketches, and of personal belongings that all these tortured souls left behind. My mind could not comprehend their pain, or the extreme human darkness that has caused all this suffering. But in grasping for meaning in all this, we were enveloped by the care of experienced peacemakers who have been coming here year after year with the intention of bringing healing and compassion to the spirit of this place.  The spirit that includes everyone: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders at this heinous tragedy.  Together we meditated outdoors, next to the train tracks that would bring thousands of people of every day here to meet their death or to work under extreme torturous conditions.  We read the names of the victims out loud. We prayed through religious rituals and ceremonies. And here is the beauty of it: one day I joined the Christian liturgy; another day the Buddhist one; next I went to a Native American circle of friendship, and on another occasion I joined the Jewish services. What opened it up for me, were the healing-loving words that were shared through each tradition, and even more so the melodies, the songs we all sang that traveled deeply and touched the depths of my heart.  And also the stories that were shared.  Sitting in the children’ s building, in those frigid barren barracks, and hearing that not one of the thousands of children who had stayed here survived, I felt the deepest despair.  Nothing could make this story okay.  There is no consolation here.  And yet, as different women stepped in the circle, to sing sweet lullabies in different languages, we all wept and brought the children’ s memories to our hearts.  Yes, one’ s life definitely changes here.  As we stepped out of our own small and personalized fears, anxieties, and suffering,  being forced to lay our hearts bare to some of the world’s worst suffering, we found ourselves grappling for the meaning of life.  There were circles of support, the so called “Council meetings” every morning, through which we were all encouraged to sit in smaller circles and try to express ourselves, weaving our own story as it came straight from the heart; thank god, those meetings helped a great deal.  Throughout the week, I felt as if I had been through a pressure cooker and would not come out of it okay, unless I could make some sort of sense of it.  “There has to be a hope for this earth, for humanity, for life to go on... There has to be a meaning...”  I kept thinking and murmuring to myself.

On my flight back to Athens, I found maybe what I was searching for in the book “Man’s Search for Meaning.”  Victor Frankl, the book’s author, professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna, was a holocaust survivor.  In his account of his Auschwitz experience, he quotes, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; he can only respond by being responsible...The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”  With this letter I wish to thank the few friends who were my main sponsors in this “Bearning Witness” retreat, my mom and husband Eraj who always support my every decision in life, my friends and working buddies at NYSY, Avocado, Zen Center Athens, as well as Ginni & Grover, Norman, and all my great friends from the Zen Peacemakers, and everyone I met at this very special retreat. May you all be blessed, and may you always find the strength and inspiration to continue touching the world with your special care and generosity.

My new friend Anna put it quite concisely:

“Our joyful faces at the end of a series of intense and sometimes harrowing days tell only a fraction of the story. The few pictures I took don't capture the scope. So grateful for the brave souls who came together to train and bear witness. So many people listened deeply to each other, honoring the reality of intergenerational trauma and questioning how we are complicit in aggression, apathy, marginalization, and silence. Honored to stand on sacred ground where my grandmother survived - and lost her family to genocide. Honored to stand with new loved ones doing everything they can to overcome genocide and war right now. People came from places as diverse as the Lakota Nation, Bosnia, Israel, Palestine, Germany, and many others to begin to see ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves.”

From Athens with in the spirit of Peace and friendship,