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Bernie Glassman to Join 2016 Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat

Bernie Glassman, after eight months of post-stroke recovery, is determined to attend the upcoming retreat in Poland in October 2016. In two conversations, one at the video above and another at the written interview below, he explains his motivation. 

Bernie: Since the stroke, I have been mainly focusing on getting my mind and body back in shape. Not too long ago, it struck me that as I am right now—in terms I can walk, I’m still with a cane—I’m ready not just focusing on getting myself better, I’m ready to look out.

And of course during this whole time I’ve had a lot of meditation, and a lot of space in which I could peer at things. But somehow the idea of Auschwitz came up, and I want to be there. I want to be there for the next retreat.

And what also came up is Marian. Everybody who goes to Auschwitz goes one night to see Marian’s work, and hear his story. And that’s been happening since pretty much the beginning. He died a few years ago. But people still get to see his work, and hear his story. But for me the importance of his story—and it is amazing, I loved the man, amazing person . . . But what struck me, I think from the first time I met him—which I believe was the second retreat that we met him—was that I noticed that he wasn’t showing anger, or hatred. And he said, “How can you hate anybody? I have not hatred for any of the Capos, or Nazis. I don’t have hate for anybody.”

Now for most people—and you have to remember that that’s why I started the Auschwitz Retreat, to learn how we can live with others without hate, without anger. Here was a man living that way. I hadn’t met people doing that. Everybody has somebody that they hate, they dislike. And in my relationship with him, he never showed me that side.

So it was very important for me. And then he died. And a couple of years have passed. And I went through my stroke to remember this path that he had started in Auschwitz started fifty years after he was released from Auschwitz. And it was started because of a stroke that he had. And a stroke brought him back to Auschwitz where he, in using his words, “drew his bearing witness to those years.” And out of that bearing witness we see the horror that we see. He did not have any hate out of it.

OK, so many years, twenty-five years have passed since I wanted to do this retreat. And what’s so important for me again, is the idea of how do we treat others. And I feel that my going back—and I want to go back to Auschwitz—one of the important things that I want to do is continue the work of Marian.

The idea of having a retreat to help us realize how hard it is to honor everyone, how we have so many hatreds that linger. But after the first retreat I met a man who was living that.

So my going back now is to continue his legacy. Maybe we could say it’s to continue the legacy of Marian and of Bernie, the both of us.

Rami: So I hear you relate to Marian, and the story of his stroke, and what the stroke made available to him. What do you see now in common, that you have with Marian?

Bernie: The ability to not hate. It’s that simple. If you look at it, it’s completely different lives and trajectories. But the one thing we share I think is the ability to not hate. I certainly felt that in him. And I feel that in me. And it’s pretty rare.

It’s interesting, so many people told me—including the varied occupational therapists, the physical therapists—mentioned to me that they haven’t heard me blaming someone for the stroke, hating what’s . . . Yeah, it’s the same thing.

What’s the point of blaming, and criticizing? And look at what it does to the life of the people. They get so caught up with hatred and anger; instead of accepting what is . . . It’s such a simple story.

For me, Zen preaches the same thing—being here, now. If I take away all the past, and all those things—where is the anger? I’m here, now. And so the question now is, what do we do? What do I do now? It’s not who do I blame? That’s not the question. The question is what do we do now? That’s where we start. Here it’s a clean slate.

Rami: So what is there?

Bernie: For me, at this point, that word is love. There’s something the stroke is doing to me – feelings and emotions are vivid to me.  You could see the love Marian had for his wife. I did not know him before the stroke. I’m curious if this all grew out of his stroke the same it did from mine, or was this part of who he was before? In my sense a lot has to be from the stroke because he hid for fifty years the fact that he was at Auschwitz. If he was open and free, he wouldn’t have to be hiding it that time. So he was trying to be away from that. And I didn’t know then— but I know ‘post-stroke’ because I feel more.

So if you’re thinking about coming to Auschwitz, please come. And I would like to address you all at the opening evening. And then based on how much energy I have I’ll meet you on the following days.

Interview Transcribed by Scott Harris

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