I spend 15 years slowly preparing for a trip into the unfaceable. One of the most important processes that supported me on this journey was observing and being witness to a US human rights advocate and coalition builder (who has German gentile heritage) do gut wrenching emotional healing work particularly against anti-Semitism and white racism. She inspired me with her intelligence, tenacity and determination to be free from the damaging effects of these forms of oppressions. Some members of her family supported the Nazis.
Two years ago I told her I was ready to join her in going to Poland and the eight day Healing from War workshop. Last year and again this year we went and were part of a 75 person international group who spent 16 hours a day for 8 days living together and working closely on our individual and collective healing. This article focuses on the most personally meaningful lesson I learned. There were many other lesson learned that will not be addressed here, such as the personal, social, economic and political impact of US imperialism, how our use of language communicates internalized oppressive patterns, the personal and social impact of growing up in a war zone and living in an occupied country, etc.
Because USers are often unawarely conditioned to take over, meaning take up a lot of space or have a tendency to be aggressive, we are limited to a small percentage of workshop participants. Thus, most workshop participants came from other countries and language translation occurred continuously during the entire workshop.
Day One of the workshop includes a four-hour guided tour of Auschwitz I; Day Two is a four-hour guided tour of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) – the largest death camps of WWII and the largest graveyard in the world. Estimates range from 1.9 – 2.1 million Jews were murdered there. Other people were murdered there as well particularly Poles, Russians, people with disabilities, and Roma. There are no graves, rather the ashes of men, women and children were scattered everywhere but particularly in the two small ponds within Auschwitz II and in a nearby river. Last year there were two particular moments of the tour that were most moving for me. First, I will say that while going through Auschwitz we were (as instructed by our workshop leader) inseparable from our companions. I had the same companions both last year and this year – one with German heritage (mentioned previously) and another who I have known for 17 years and who like me – is Jewish and our fathers’ fought in WWII.
Both last year and this year, while visiting these concentration/death camps I felt not numbness but it was hard to feel emotions due to being satiated with information that bombarded all of my senses with the horrors of what we saw and what we learned. I could not take in any more of anything other than putting one foot in front of the other, holding onto my companions and absorbing this atrocity. Last year the first emotional/ spiritual experience I had was on day one while standing in the gas chamber. What came to me was ‘sorrow of the souls’. One hundred and forty men, women and children were crammed into this cement rectangular room. Then poisonous gas containers were released. It took 15 minutes for everyone to die. The ovens were conveniently located in the room next door. These were highly organized death factories. And I could feel the sorrow of the souls. I was grateful that I could feel. I understand how it is that many people go through Auschwitz feeling numb.
On day two the fullness continued as my senses were bombarded with more sights, stories and information until we got to the pond. Suddenly and unexpectedly a spiritual blanket unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life came over me. I don’t know which came first – the words or my tears – but the unmistakable message was “something happened here” meaning right here and it was somehow related to me. I will never forget this; I felt deeply supported by the embrace of my companions.
After completing the workshop and returning to the U.S. I spent many hours over many months doing emotional release work related to this deeply moving and mysterious spiritual/emotional “something happened here” encounter. I wanted to know what happened and how it was connected to me. Were the ashes of my ancestors there? Possibly. I knew I had to return to the pond and so I went back to Auschwitz and the workshop and I believe I found what I was looking for but I didn’t know I was looking for it until I found it. And I didn’t know I found it until someone pointed it out. Let me explain.
Last month I was back at the pond with my companions and I sat on the grass and felt the sun’s powerful white light and warmth while I shook and cried and asked “What happened here? How is it related to me?” I soaked in the fullness of the radiating white light that seemed to communicate “go forward into the light”. And there was a giant red dragonfly that kept flying – right – left – right – left for a long time – between me and the pond. I laughed at the dragon fly and asked “What are you doing here?” It felt like she was an eye-catching reminder of the beauty and simplicity of life and nature. I didn’t have any grand answers to my questions but I felt satisfied. I had returned, I felt a deep presence of powerfully, warm light that flowed through my body – I knew I had more healing work to do and this moment would help carry me forward.
I am skipping some of the less important details but I will say that one thing that many Jews share and that I became more acutely aware of that at this years workshop is that many of us don’t know this ancestral history. So many Jews had so many family members murdered in WWII that our history is lost and it is or was too painful for many of our family members to talk about. Six million Jews were murdered in WWII – 90% of the Jews of Europe. One workshop participant this year shared that a relative of hers had sent her an email – one page – listing a several relatives who had been killed in the holocaust. Right before the workshop she decided to print the page and that is when she saw that the email was actually 10 pages. She had not scrolled down to see that 264 of her family members were killed in the Holocaust.
Two days after visiting the pond I was in a 6-person ‘sharing our stories’ support groups. I had shared lots of stories over the past year and several stories at this years workshop mostly about my ancestors on my mother’s side who escaped/immigrated from Russia and how my father died when I was 14 and he was an only child and my mother thought his ancestors were from Hungary and last year at Auschwitz I saw the names of hundreds and hundreds of Spiro’s who were murdered in Auschwitz. This time I told the story as I had never done before. I said “I don’t have a story.
On my father’s side of the family – there was my father and his parents. I don’t know any other relatives. If any of them had survived Auschwitz I think I would have known about them. So there is no story. It makes sense that some of those Spiro’s were most likely my relatives but I don’t know. There is no story”. I don’t recall what else I said but the support group leader said. “You found them” and I immediately felt her words in the core of my body with a sudden pressure on my chest and then tears came. Oh my God – I found them. That was the message in the white light. That was what happened at the pond. That was the answer I didn’t know I was looking for. That was why I had to return to the pond. It made sense. I have never had such a powerful spiritual pull to be somewhere and to work on this specific experience. It was fate.
I found my family at the pond. It was meant to be. I am left feeling more deeply connected to my people – my family and the thousands of years of oppression of my people. And that also connects me to all humans because we live on a planet where no one escapes the damage of war, the ultimate betrayal of humanity. This great trauma and the deep betrayal that accompanies it is an unfaceable anguish. The pain is a bond amongst all who live whether we are aware of it or not. I feel more deeply connected to my place in history and everyone who walks or has walked through life.
I know more deeply than ever in my body and in my soul that we are all much more deeply connected then we are aware of. I want more than anything I have ever wanted – to end war. I am getting clearer and clearer on how this can be done. I honor that knowing how it is done and actually doing it are two very different things. What work could possibly be harder than this?
My life’s focus since last year’s workshop has been to heal from the damaging effect that war has had on my mind – both the inner war and the outer war – and the damage that impacts our ways of thinking that get passed on from generation to generation.
If I can end the war in my mind by healing these old traumas then peace will emerge. I now know that that is why I was lead back to the pond. That was the message in the white light. My soul is healing and finding peace. I am not there yet. I appreciate the process.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.