Fire Burning in Auschwitz

There is fire still burning in Auschwitz-Birkenau  —Judy Tierney

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
                                                 Mary Oliver

There is a fire still burning only it is invisible and so cold it burns. Let it, I tell myself, but try to will it otherwise. I want to escape this paradox, but there is nowhere to go. I know I am connected to everything and everyone, past and present, this one Earth shared, the air we breathe, the same sky that blesses each with sun and rain no matter who or where we are.

© 2014 Martin Stengesser

© 2014 Martin Stengesser

Doesn’t this mean I am somehow connected to the millions of dead, tortured and exterminated children, women and men as well as the thousands who relentlessly took part in the unspeakable acts I bear witness to at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim? I am not separate. May the cold fire keep me from forgetting.

Each day, January 5-9th, I was privileged to visit the Memorial, to feel the vast silence and to sense the burning of human souls who died here, disappearing into anonymous ash and the deep wound in the flesh of our one, life-giving Earth. There are beautiful birch trees growing just beyond the crumbling ruins of gas chambers and furnaces that incinerated human beings. This is what is there. Growing natural life and massive, brutal, unnatural death at once.

Through solitary and group walks, in silence and in dialogue with others over meals, and the good counsel and warm hospitality of our mentors and guides at the Center for Dialogue & Prayer, Father Manfred Deselaers, author of “And Your Conscience Never Haunted You?”: The Life of Rudolf Höss, Commander of Auschwitz, and Pastor and Program Manager at the Centre, along with Mary O’Sullivan, a Member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy in the Education Department, I was able to look gently into the recesses of my heart, to see through ignorance and presumptions which I use to keep myself at a distance from what I don’t know or understand. Most importantly, I discover, that I cannot do any of this alone. Encountering my own fearful, closed heart, allowing it to soften and open becomes the threshold through which authentic encounter with the other becomes possible. Where love becomes possible.

For me, love is a deep mystery to be lived and cannot be defined in words. However, this quote by Anais Nin comes close to how I take it’s meaning here: “What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever he is.”

I came 4,000 miles from the small seaside town in Portland, Maine, USA, because of a deep encounter with Etty Hillesum who died November 30, 1943 at Birkenau. Her love of life, her wish to be “the thinking Heart of a whole concentration camp” in her home country of Holland kindled our own hearts and eventually became a performance piece of poems and music adapted from her journal and letters. We’ve been sharing her wisdom with audiences for the past seven years. We were grateful to be able to give voice to her words and spirit at the Center for Dialogue & Prayer, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, with an audience of young people the evening of January 7th.  We also walked the grounds of the womens’ barracks at Birkenau together, hand in hand, with her words on our breath and in our hearts, to honor her and her humanity and the sacred life of each and every unique person who lived and died there. May her words be the seeds of new life and of love and peace.

“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others,” Etty Hillesum wrote. “And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”

Copyright © 2014 Judy Tierney


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