A group of people from 5 different continents coming together to heal from war. The basic idea is to tell our stories answering the question: how has your life been affected by war? We’re instructed to listen only. The listening allows the healing to begin. Each of us has a different story but the underlying premise is that we’re all in this together. We have all been hurt. Even if the connection doesn’t seem obvious at first, soon it becomes apparent that everyone has been affected by war or the threat of war.
I have certainly been hurt. I’ve been affected as a Jewish woman with roots in Poland and Eastern Europe and with ancestors carrying and passing on the scars of persecution and genocide, As a person born in Argentina in the beginning of The Dirty War. As an Israeli citizen who served in the military and have gone through several wars. As a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend of men who have had to put themselves in harms way and who possibly had to take other people’s lives, As a person living in these current times with leaders who are choosing to stoke war and ignore the preciousness of all life.
As I begin to unravel my personal story, the tears start rolling. I’m overwhelmed by the extent and depth of the wounds. I’m realizing that I’ve been literally shell shocked. I’m comforted by the knowledge that each tear counts as immensely valuable in my healing process and that releasing this pain will clear some mental space for me to live more fully and be more effective towards ending oppression and violence in the world.
People in the group come from so many different countries, cultures, religious backgrounds and socio-economical classes and we have to face the extremely uncomfortable reality that some of us belong to the group that perpetrates the violence and some of us are the victims. How do we deal with this painful fact and stay connected? Our working assumption is that all people are good and that it would not be possible for a human being to hurt another human being unless they were severely hurt themselves.
“I’m a human being, no better or worse than any other human being”. We’re instructed to say this phrase out loud to a listening partner and notice what feelings and thoughts come up as a result. As I say it I start to think about all the places where I feel bad about myself. If I’m really honest however, I can notice that there are also times when I feel better than others. How terribly embarrassing to admit: I’m supposed to know better no? It is actually a relief to face up to reality. I’m noticing that this comparison business is constantly running in my head on some unaware level and as it becomes my turn to be listener I learn that most people have their own version of it as well. it seems helpful to talk about it and release the tensions that come with feeling separate from others.
How can we feel worse than and better than at the same time? We feel worse than because even with the best of intentions, most of us, as young people, have been mistreated over and over again in our society. We feel better than in order to compensate for the places where we feel small and powerless. When groups of people feel better than another group, that is an excuse to mistreat that group to the point where violence can be justified.
As we’re slowly chipping at our hurts we are getting closer and closer to each other which prepares us to our several day trip to Auschwitz. What seems to help ease the dread of the visit is the people in the group and the way it’s set up. I’ve never seen a more rational and intentional way for people to treat each other. Every single person is so well thought off, in the context of their background, with so much care and tenderness. No one is left behind. Those of us who have less privilege always get to talk first. always get to the front of the food line. There’s a great emphasis on integrity and correctness which increases the feeling of safety for people, especially those of us who have been oppressed. We constantly make mistakes but are encouraged to keep reaching for each other and not hold back. It’s better to own the mistakes, apologizing when necessary and to speak up when we have been wronged. We are working together taking care of our physical needs. Everyone has a job. Everyone gets to share the burden.
Almost time to go. I have my “Compa”, a buddy that I have connected with in advance. What a blessing! My Compa and I are already very close. Before the visit we are told that what we’re about to see is horrendous beyond any measure and that it’s the most extreme example of humans hurting other humans. We are encouraged not to try to understand it in our minds because that would be impossible but rather open our hearts and let ourselves feel the grief, the terror and the outrage. We’re instructed to be physically connected to our Compa’s at all times and not to wander off in isolation. We are told that our local guide will stop every so often to let us exchange listening time with our partners so we can process our feelings.
We’re there. It’s as horrific as I imagined. I can’t seem to feel everything that I would probably be able to feel if my old trauma hasn’t left me numb in some places. I’m trying not to be hard on myself. I know that it will take time for me to process what I’ve seen. The big cry comes later, not as I witness the horror, but at the last exhibit which artfully presents images and clips of the robust, beautiful, everyday life that existed before the atrocity. What a loss! How can anyone try to take that away?
Looking directly at what my people went through in great detail, I’m making very clear connections in my mind as to why my people own certain behavioral patterns as a collective and why I often think and act the way I do as an individual: I stand at the spot on the train tracks where the transports of people where unloaded, where the selection was executed and people’s fate was determined on a whim, I understand why every minute decision in my life can so often feel like a life or death decision. I understand the continuous sense of urgency, the panic that often strikes, the general feeling of overwhelm,
It becomes easier to do away with my annoyance towards myself and find compassion to my own people. It also sheds a tremendous light at what is really important in life. A major healing mark: standing on the very path where women and children from my tribe were unknowingly walked to their death and declaring to my Compa with much shaking and crying “I came to get my dance back! They tried to kill my dance but I won’t let them”. The tour ends but as we leave the premises we sneak` a tiny little dance. Of course.
In the days following the visit we process and do some more healing work. Even more is possible after going through such a difficult experience as a group. More closeness, more tenderness. To counteract the heaviness of the topic, there are lots of moments of joy, singing, dancing, celebrating life, our humanness. The layer of numbness is only beginning to melt. I’m grateful I found the courage to face my fear of this journey and that I did it in this exact way. Everything that I experienced with the group was the exact opposite of what we witnessed in the camps and provides the answer and antidote to any hopelessness about the human situation.
Writing this on my trip home and thinking about what do I want to take away from this experience. It seems that having taken the step to face the unfaceable in Auschwitz on the one hand and experiencing deep human connection on the other side, are giving me the desire and the courage to face the parts in my life that are not working. I would like to be able to keep moving on the process of un-numbing in order to have more access to all of my feelings so I can heal completely. I think that means making a commitment to do the right thing by me and by others and not run away from feelings that are hard to feel in my every day life as well as with what’s going on in the world, while reaching for more closeness with people. I’m also more determined to “get my dance back”. The plan is still a bit vague but I trust that the work I’ve done will somehow lead to more clarity.
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