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The On Being Project

Listen to the Soil: Beauty and Terrain After Auschwitz

“If understanding is impossible, recognizing is necessary, because what has happened can happen again, consciences can again be seduced and obscured: even our own.”
Primo Levi

It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m walking with the ghosts of Auschwitz.
It’s several hours since our group has returned from Oświęcim. Our five-day bearing witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau is over and most of the 130 participants have already started journeying home — back to Holland and Germany, Canada and England, Israel, Australia, Switzerland, and the United States.
Of the ones of us still here in Krakow, most everyone is now tucked away in a full-day, post-retreat council training. Any disappointment I’d initially felt for not having registered for that training is gone. I’m just so happy to be here, in Krakow, for an extra few days, and to have so much of these days to myself. Free from schedules. To follow my own rhythms. To walk with the ghosts whose presences and voices have entered me, asking to be felt, to be heard.
Leaving my bags in the hotel lobby, I get ready to head out. I pack up warm things for the day and, having finished the books I brought with me, I borrow Ka-Tzetnik’s Shivitti: A Vision from a retreat friend. Then, on my way downstairs, passing a table with desserts and coffee, I pinch two pieces of black currant coffee cake before I walk out of the Saski around 2 p.m., no idea where I’m going.

“Listen to the soil. Let Auschwitz be your teacher.”

This is what Frank, one of the retreat leaders — or spirit-holders, as they are called here — says the first night we all spend in Oświęcim, the Polish name for the town where the Nazis created the network of Auschwitz death camps.
“Listen to the soil.” I have heard these words now from a few returning participants who have been coming for two or three, some even five or ten years in a row.
“Let Auschwitz be your teacher.” I hear the words, and take them in, not knowing what they mean. What does it mean to listen to the soil? What does it mean to make the ground of a tortured, crucifying place my teacher? Besides, it’s not like I came with any specific question needing answering. In fact I don’t even know why I’ve come. I just knew, inside of me, I needed to come. So I came.

(Marco Ghitti / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

On that first night in Oświęcim, with Frank at the front of the room, we are all sitting in a large hall at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer. It’s where we will sleep and eat breakfast and dinner each day of the five-day program. The Centre is about a mile walk from the Birkenau train tracks and cemetery grounds. And each morning at nine a.m. two buses drive from the Centre to the grounds, returning at four or five p.m.

I am among the 30 or 40 people who on most mornings and afternoons walk the mile from where we are staying to Auschwitz. Sometimes I walk with my friend Andi. And sometimes I walk in silence, listening to the ground beneath me, and to the sky, and to the soil, wondering — if I listen, really listen, what would I hear?
Walking the streets of Krakow the day we return from Oświęcim, I feel out of space, out of time, in the grey and brown, black and white, streets and statue pillars, towering cathedrals and Klezmer-filled synagogues, where horse-drawn carriages kathump-kathump around the town square with tourists for a hundred zloty. And there are bicycles and pigeons, flute and guitar buskers, opera singers and bubble-blowers — people and magic and time without dimensional factors, immeasurable, without a starting point, so that all of it at once is here and then and next and now, undifferentiated, collapsed, boundless.
It doesn’t make any sense. I am trying so hard to make it all make sense. And, even though it is tearing at me more and more vigorously, I am afraid to let go of all my faculties for sense-making. Because if I do, what will be left of me? What would be on the other side of that?
How will I ever possibly be able to speak about it, to write about it, to make sense of it to the young people I teach and work with, when I get back home? Because how do you talk about that kind of suffering — that unexplainable, unimaginable despair, especially with young people? How do we as teachers — who cherish our students and hold with care and uncertainty our capacity to bring them into a deeper engagement with life, and their own unique, vital voices — how do we accompany our students as they face these questions, courageously and fearfully asking and trying to make sense of the world, its suffering, and their place in it?
More to the point, there’s an email in my inbox needing answering and I don’t know what to say, because how do you answer a 14-year-old girl who you saw reading The Diary of Anne Frank after you mentioned some by-the-point detail about the Jewish Holocaust in your English class. And she asked you what that was and you were stunned silent because you didn’t know that it was possible to be 14 in this world and not know what that was. You started to explain it gently and then gave up because you didn’t know where to start, what to say, in that moment — when she writes you, asking:

“So, Ms. Yardena, what was Auschwitz like?”

What words can I use to describe that place?
That place of no-time and no-space, where I cannot grasp what day it is or what month or what year, or where I am, or where I’ve come from, or where all these other hundred or so have come from, and how it is that we are all sitting here together on black cushions and black mats between two barbed-wire infinities and entanglements of railroad tracks, where all you can see forever are barracks — still freezing — and chimneys — still, in my eyes, burning — and hungry ghosts — asking to be heard and to be remembered?

(it is elisa / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

What words—

Would it help if I described the smell of that black ashy soil? The taste of the soil in those beautiful autumn yellow woods where men and women and children who’d just come off the railroad cars stood, stripped, standing naked, waiting for the showers-that-weren’t-showers to be emptied, for their turn, so that back to those woods their bodies could return as gassed ash?
What if I helped you hear the stone silence of those young and old erect trees, maybe the same ones that witnessed those days, or maybe their children or grandchildren that have grown up, like I have, knowing more than their parents and grandparents thought they knew, breastfed and raised on the composted dreams and fears and shames and secrets of the ones who came before us, who not knowing how to free themselves, bled their haunted death-dreams into our young, laughing bodies?
What name can I even use to call that place? I feel self-incriminating each time I use its well-known, overused name. With each invocation, I’m afraid — am I also reducing the enormity of that place — and the love that was felt there, and the joy and hope and endless tenderness felt at each pronouncement of God’s Great Name, Yitgal V’Yitkadash, and every leaning toward life-beyond-life — to every limited idea that we, as a society, have collectively formed about it? Before we ever meet the place, meet the ground? Before we ever are willing to encounter that place as a teacher, open to listening what that soil might teach us, if only we could stay silent, not-knowing, open, open, more open than we have ever learned to be, and just listen?
Even Ka-Tzetnik, a survivor of that place, had no words. (That place, that place — what else can I keep calling it? How many times can I use the word “Auschwitz” before it ceases, if it hasn’t already, to mean what it must mean?)
In his book Shivitti, Ka-Tzetnik writes and writes and, yet, the rivers of words obscure more than they reveal; as if he knows that he has no words to comprehend, to explain to the reality of that place. And yet he has taken a vow. He must keep trying. But even as he does, he feels tormented: that every word he has ever written is a failed grasping at some truth he cannot get near enough to looking at, to naming. But words he feels he must use anyway, to make good his vow to the ones he vowed to, when he shoveled their bodies into ovens, and watched his friends turn into ash.
Ka-Tzetnik, even when called to take the stand at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, couldn’t speak about that place. The judge asked for testimony to prove its existence. To testify to what had happened there. To put it all on a court record, once and for all. But Ka-Tzetnik couldn’t speak. Said he couldn’t speak. But the judge, not believing the famed author’s sudden speechlessness, said: go on, tell us, tell us what you saw.
So what could this man do but give into his body that knew too much and yet still couldn’t find the words? Convulsing on the floor of the courtroom before any words came out, Ka-Tzetnik was rushed out by an ambulance to a hospital. He, an author, said he had no words. And in the end, he had no words.
Because the name that is used — if it be used — needs to not be a substitute for anything: not a stand-in for a set of black and white stills; not for glass cases stuffed with greyed golden hair and a thousand lifetimes of shoes and eye glasses and suitcases and metal teeth and human-fat-soap; not even for the sacred sensibility that only hushed voices can be used to speak of it or that there is any possibility that if we make enough movies about it we will ever be able to understand it, or the belief that no love ever blossomed there, no ribald jokes were ever told there, that no bone-deep beauty existed there.
We need a name that is bigger than the place. And yet that somehow still lets the place be just a place.

(Abel Francés Quesada / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

Walking the streets of Krakow, days later: I see the black and white footage of this place, of Chassidic men and children and Polish street sellers, inside of me, seemingly always there, now filling with unbelievable, irrepressible color: gold adorned cathedral walls, the same yellow-golds outside, suffusing autumn with wistfulness and melancholy; the greens of winding park lawns that grow on and beneath and around the stones of memory to the dead; purple velvety cafés where there is laughing and drinking and dreaming and midnight blue loving, people with young hearts losing themselves in the sweetest softness and the wildest imaginings beyond time. And the swelling of a hundred thousand blooming crimsons and violets, tucked together in bouquets, bursting out of their sellers’ yellow-and-white-striped umbrella worlds.

Walking through Krakow, I carry Auschwitz inside me, feeling rise up in me: sadness, tired grief that feels like it’s been around for a very long time, not heavy, just there, slowing down the world and my fervor within it; a sadness from someplace deep in the earth, in the soil, with a source that is miles, worlds away.
I need to find a way to bandage up my torn up insides and burned off outsides so I can hide the tenderness that wants to live openhearted — joyous or weeping, it doesn’t care — forever. And I need to prepare myself to leave in two days, to find a way to return to Los Angeles, and then to Santa Fe, to traffic and to family and to students’ questions that I have no answers to.
Walking in Krakow: I feel swirling timelessness and space-lessness, time beyond time, space beyond space; and a self with no self, a self that no longer touches the outer edges of my body-mind, and a thinning of the veil between life and death so that in some moments, eyes closed or staring skyward, I can’t tell which side of the life-death continuum I’m on, or if there are even sides at all.

(Abel Francés Quesada / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

And still, walking for hours in Krakow with Auschwitz and with grief and the teachings of the soil that I have heard but don’t understand and with ghosts and with impossible knowings of immeasurable time — even with all of this, there is something else too. Nudging. Beaming. Dancing through everything. Here they are: swaying ribbons of light. Miracles of child-spirits. And I feel myself blessed, twirling under the sweet-smelling rain. I’m in awe of the grass for being so green. I’m inspired by the young opera singer who shyly rests her hands on her rotund belly, singing her heart out.

And yet, even walking in Krakow in this peace, the ghosts of Auschwitz, the voices from that soil, all the old trees and child trees and children barracks’ lullabyes, keep returning.
The hungry spirits — seen and unseen. Quiet, kind, gentle. Full of forgiveness and compassion. So thankful, so eternally grateful for our coming. For our walking together on that land, sitting together on that land, reciting the names of the dead on that land, and praying together — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Lakota, Buddhists, atheists — on that land. Returning day after day to the tracks and to the barracks and to the yellow woods. Remembering the ones who even in those last hours, stayed close, guarded over each other, and the children, with fear and hope, and with a love that is deep and faithful, a teaching for the ages.
What of all this can I write to my girl in my email reply back? What of this can I tell the students I’m due to meet and talk to next week, to inspire their own writing? Is it enough to say, yes, everywhere there is suffering, but don’t forget that love and beauty are also everywhere too?
Or, is even that conceding too much? Do I really mean that, or am I just trying to protect them — to keep their young, laughing hearts safe — from the tortured knowings of Auschwitz?
Finding my way back that Saturday night in the rain to the main square — which is lit up with a thousand beautiful lights, street lamps and flying glow-in-the-dark disks, a beaming clock tower and the twinkling gold Cathedral strands — I walk towards St. Peter and Paul’s Church.
Somewhere during the day I’ve picked up a flyer for a concert there tonight, and more anything else, I know this is where I want to go.
I walk through the high gates adorned with the sculptures of many saints, buy a ticket for 60 zloty and open the heavy wood door leading inside. It is cold and my coat is already on and zipped up. I put on gloves and a white knit beret I have in my bag, and finding an empty seat at the front of the ten rows of chairs set out in this colossal, golden palace, I sit down and wait.

A few minutes after eight, the musicians enter. Three violinists, a cellist, and a bass player take their places in front of me. Then, starting with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, slowly, slowly, their bows and strings and hearts fill the air with a beauty that doesn’t make sense. My heart is swelling, racing, widening, trying to grab hold of every pulse, every low thundering moan and high-pitched wild love-flight, to preserve it, to make it last, within me, forever. Because if I could, if I did, what then would not be possible?

But the ghosts from earlier — from the soil and the land of the haunted and the dead that I have been walking with all day, through the Safed-like streets of Krakow, charge in, challenging. They will not be silent. They must know: How dare this music, this unbridled beauty exist in a world with Auschwitz? How dare it exist in a world with unacknowledged genocides, with tens of thousands of refugees who are making their way, barely alive, across deserts and oceans, arriving at the borders, finding no country willing to take them in; in a world with girls who have been bought and sold before they’ve reached puberty and learned that they can dream their own dreams, and with boys who use guns to speak what they cannot speak, and who never will know the fullness of the lives they might have lived?

How dare something so magical, so triumphant and tender exist—
Suddenly I remember how a young, dark-haired singer I met in a Krakow café two days before the retreat started couldn’t grasp why I was going to spend five days visiting and re-visiting that tortured world, the unmarked graves of a number-beyond-numbers. He had just visited Auschwitz the day before, and three hours there had torn him apart.
With pain in his voice, his tone accusing:

I don’t understand you.
Isn’t a couple hours there enough?
What—what do you think you’re going to get by staying there for five days?
It’s a place where the Germans murdered us—
tried to completely destroy us.
Yes, that means you, me—all of us.
We would have been dead if they had their way.
It made me sick being there for three hours.
And you’re going for five days?
Why are you doing this?
Why?
What do you think you’re going to get?
Answers?
There are no answers to Auschwitz.

Suddenly, out of the strings, a flute appears — and I am lost again in the intoxicating, luminous force that conceived this and I want to sit here forever, where all that is is beautiful and where beauty doesn’t need to give an answer. Where it simply is.
I don’t want the music to end or the night to end. I don’t want to walk outside and meet again the world on the streets that seems to always be gnawing at me from the insides not to look away, not to walk past.
Sometimes, I just don’t want to look anymore. Sometimes I just want to walk — anonymously, free — past.
But there is no respite inside me. When I hear the music, filled with all the beauty and with everything else, all I can now think of are the musicians stationed outside of the gates of Auschwitz, outside the gates promising, cursing “Arbeit Macht Frei,” inmate musicians made to fill that scourged world with a mangled, horrifying beauty, forced to play impossible marching rhythms, to which inmates who could not keep up were shot in front of the bandstand, holes through their heads, finally free.
And when I hear the music, I also remember T.S. Eliot. I hear the speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” who cries out, punctuating the bewildering numbness around him, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”
I think of how much these aching melodies and over-layering harmonies disturb everything. How beauty actively disturbs the universe. How it makes the world a place that cannot only be filled with suffering and with the numbness from suffering. It asks of us presence and wonder. Joy and hope. Often in the face of having no reason and no faith to justify it all. Because true beauty can be radical. Changing us, changing everything — simply by staying true to its natural, inborn grace.

(Abel Francés Quesada / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

I think about how beauty, to me, is a terrain — spacious and boundless — that can hold everything. The way suffering can hold everything. Beauty and suffering: they are not negations of each other. They are its ineffable, fully expressed wholeness. When our heart opens to it, we are human and we are more than human; we are of this time and space and we are of all times and all spaces.

But how do we hold both? How do we not become so overwhelmed by the suffering that we cannot see and feel beauty and love anymore? And how do we not become so transported and intoxicated by beauty that we cannot feel into the grief of the darkest human places?
Beyond these questions — How can I sit with my girls as they bear witness to the unfolding of their lives? The deaths and divorces, the terror threats and refugee blood and society’s exploding fears? How can I sit with them as they ask and feel and listen and write: accompanying them as they open to the fullness of the pain and the suffering of the life-moments they encounter?
Most of all, what I want to do, is to accompany them. To comfort them, inspire them, to hold silent space for them as they dare to stay a little while longer with not-knowing, with not-sense-making. I want to help them wander their ways into — and rest — in the boundless space of their lives, where alongside suffering there lives, even if only tenderly, barely heard, a beauty that is deeper, a beauty that is more.

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