We can define ritual as a re-enactment of a previous event, in some cases a traumatic one, within the safety of sympathetic relationships. Its objective is not to repeat the trauma, but to bring resolution to it. Taking part in a ritual can evoke the deepest human experience of joy, grief or pain as well as unravel truths and insights previously unknown. It was my participation in a number of rituals at Auschwitz-Birkenau that built upon one another that brought me to a truth I would otherwise never have imagined.
I did not intend to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I thought that my reading about it in depth was sufficient. But when friends, Jews and Christians alike, from an international peacemaker group asked me to join them on a pilgrimage to the former concentration camp, I went. Once there, I plunged myself into a series of rituals that engaged me totally and brought into focus a truth I had long resisted. The four million people who had actually experienced the traumatic event there—though vividly present in my imagination, and, to my way of thinking, sympathetic to my resistance, defensiveness and denials—were long dead.
We were at the old Jewish ghetto in Krakow. A friend mentioned that hundreds of thousands of Jews had once lived there. On that night we saw no one; the area was empty; all that humanity had been extinguished. We finally reached a Jewish restaurant, where the peacemakers gathered for a communal dinner. Halfway through the meal, a young man who had joined the group approached my table and shouted at me, “This holocaust was your fault—you and your church.” I said nothing, but inwardly responded with the primitive defense of denial, “I am not. We are not. Go away.”
We were on the bus to Birkenau. We followed the train tracks that led to the yawning gate in the barracks that I had seen so often in pictures. No picture prepared me for the reality. All in the bus fell silent. I asked myself, “Who built this? Who sat down and designed it?” I knew that it had not been built in a moment or in a fit of passion. My response was to deny any responsibility, any part of that evil. Answering my own question, I told myself, “Whoever they were, they were not a part of me or my church.” I displaced my fear of responsibility onto others far away.
The third ritual took place during the group meeting we held upon entering the camp. A German not yet 20 years old joined us. He was overwhelmed by the reality that stretched before us. He stood up with tears in his eyes and told us, “My father fought for Germany, not for this,” and he gestured about in shame and disgust. I identified with him and so once again denied any responsibility. Instead I told myself: “Yes, that’s right. I live for Christ and his church, not for this. Yes, young man, this cannot touch us.”
The fourth ritual occurred on the day the group had reserved for sitting together in silence. We sat all day on the platform where the Jews had left the train and were separated: husband from wife, parents from children. Hour after hour, as we sat in silence, a reader intoned the names of those who had passed through. I tried to feel their terror and grief; but sitting there in the November rain, I could feel only my own cold and discomfort. I convinced myself that I would do better to focus my attention on warming myself, instead of asking who had forced these people, and for what reason, to survive a winter with only scraps of food and clothing as light as pajamas. I continued to resist seeing in myself the possibility of any contact with such evil.
The fifth ritual came from our acceptance of the rule to refrain from eating or drinking in the camp. How decent of us, I thought—an insignificant gesture that cost me nothing and that I used to keep from facing the truth that was slowly growing within me.
We visited the barrack for the children. I sat on the bench where the children once huddled together and fingered the toys they later left behind. Who shut the door and listened to their screaming? Who stood outside with a gun to shoot those children who crawled out in search of their mothers? It was easy for me to dissociate myself from that monster. I convinced myself that he could not have been human.
The seventh ritual was even worse than the one before. We visited the barrack where the women who could no longer work were housed until they could be killed. And because they could no longer work, they were no longer given bread or water. Many died of starvation and thirst right here on these bunks. I ran my hands over the wooden frames where women had once lain in hopeless suffering. Others in our group sang hymns in Yiddish and Polish. Some tears were shed, but not many. This was not grief that shed tears. This was grief that split rocks. What monster devised this? I dissociated myself from him completely.
The eighth ritual occurred during our walk to the ash pit, the hole next to the crematorium where the ashes of the victims were unceremoniously dumped. The pit was not wide, but it was deep, and the rain fell steadily on the remains of thousands. Hearing the rabbi say it was time for prayers, the Jews moved away from us and joined together to pray and sing for their dead. Christians from different countries in Europe gathered around me and asked for the Eucharist. I felt I could not celebrate the liturgy at the ash pit, of all places, without some permission. I turned to the ashes but they were silent. I turned to the rabbi who said, “Of course you can pray here; just don’t build a cathedral.” So we Christians stood in a circle 10 feet from the ash pit. I put the altar linens down in the mud and placed the bread and wine on them, open to the November rain. And thus, in that place, we Christians prayed our liturgy, “Father, forgive us our sins.”
We stood in a circle around the pile of rubble that had once been the gas chamber and crematorium that were destroyed by the Germans before they left. Each of us was given a few moments to speak. One woman across from me spoke up and said that her mother and grandmother were brought into this very place. They were stripped naked and were waiting to be gassed. The speaker’s mother—then a young girl—said to her mother, the speaker’s grandmother, “We can’t die like this.” The grandmother put her arm around her daughter and said, “We can’t live like this.”
At that moment the door to the waiting room was thrown open and guards rushed in to pull the two women out to make room for a truckload of children who had just arrived. Because the two women could still work, they were spared to make room for the children who could not. Both women survived the war. But the grandmother lost her mind and died in a home for the insane. The daughter married and her own daughter stood before us to tell the tale.
Then the rabbi spoke. He said that we, the innocent, came to bear witness to the suffering of the innocent. At this, the truth I was moving toward all these days became clear. I remembered the words of Shakespeare in his most fearful of plays, “Know thou this, that men are as the time is.” And I realized that the monster I had run from was not Germany or the church but my own human nature. I knew that on another day in another time, I might wear a very different face from the face I show to the world: a face of indifference, evasion and acquiescence.
I felt an elbow in my ribs. It was my turn to speak. Moved forward by all the ritual changes I had undergone, I raised my voice with the truest words I had spoken all week: “I am not innocent.” As we slowly made our way out of Birkenau, several Jewish friends threw their arms around me and said, “Don’t be silly. You are not responsible for this.” The day before, their words might have comforted me. But on that day they were too late.
The 10th and last ritual took place during the farewell dinner for all the peacemakers. The Jews were in the center of the room singing and dancing in large circles. I found a friend at a table off to the side and sat down with him. He said, “How about a glass of wine?’ I said, “How about a bottle?” Suddenly the dancing across the room stopped and the rabbi stepped forward and blessed new wine and poured it, and then he took up the first glass and he walked across the room and he offered it to me.
And so my many rituals and my many voiceless brothers and sisters led me to another truth: There is no forgiveness at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but there is rich humanity.