Honoring the Ancestors, Bridging and Dancing in the Grass: A Pilgrimage to Dachau by Michelle Katz
This month I found myself on a journey to Germany. The trip consisted of two parts for me: a pilgrimage to Dachau and a gathering of 200 people across 23 different Countries that offer Rites-of-Passage to the world (More on this next week.)
The first two days were spent with a small group of rites-of-passage guides coming together to talk about our ancestors, to visit one of the most deplorable concentration camps in the time of Nazi Germany. Dachau was one of the first camps established during the early 1930’s to imprison Jews, Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals and emigrant. It is the site where many SS guards were trained in methods of torture, tyranny and maltreatment. A site that was a model for all other concentration camps created in years to follow.
The small group gathered the night before the pilgrimage to Dachau. We shared stories about what we knew of our lineage and how we have all held this somber history of persecution, German descendants, Jewish descendants and everyone else, the whole world holds this tragic history. As I sat in this circle, it hit me that I sat as the only Jewish person in this group. I told my story of my grandparents, 2 surviving the camps, 1 surviving a prison, another marking this time with her family (including 7 children) in a small hole dug out of the earth. I spoke about the deaths I knew of that lead to my grandfather remarrying my grandmother post war and giving birth to my father. I spoke about how the holocaust in a large part is the reason my father and subsequently, I exist. Thus, my relationship with this abysmal happening, is challenging to the say the least. I felt quiet, holding guilt and shame, fear and heartache.
The next day, we arrived at Dachau. I set my intention: honoring and bridging. Honoring my ancestors and something about the word “bridging” felt important though uncertain of what it was about yet. To honor and bridge, I crossed the threshold into this silent solo walk on this landscape.
I felt the loneliness hit me strongly. I missed my family. I wondered about my mom and dad and how they might have experienced this. I walked on the grass, because I knew that my ancestors would have been shot if they did. It was my “Fuck You” statement to it all, though the stories of the men shot on this lawn was much more offensive than my private quiet defiance more than half a century later. Stories that are etched in my heart, of the SS guard pulling the hat off a prisoner and throwing it on the grass ordering him to get it, knowing he would be shot if he defied the SS, but if he stepped on the grass the SS in the tower would shoot him anyway. Images craved in my minds-eye of my ancestors gray and devoid of life by alive standing being fences, while I looked upon incredible Oak trees just on the other side of the metal chain-link.
I stopped at the crematorium, I walked in each chamber, where people were taken to take off their clothing because they were told they would shower, to the room they were gassed, to the room where bodies lay lifeless before being moved onto a metal stretcher and shoved into stoves. And then I stepped into the depth of the woods surrounding this site, where ashes of “thousands of unknown” are the foundation of the landscape. Through the depth of the woods, where I saw the firing wall, the remnants of blood stains and echoes of screams and prayers unanswered. I touched every oak tree standing tall and strong. I walked to the memorial built at the far corner of the site, muttering the few Jewish prayers I knew, and sat there in the dark with a far off light coming through the roof. A light at the end of a tunnel. I sat at the bunkers and ate a bit of bread at each one, leaving crumbs for the ancestors. (We were told not to eat onsite but this was another exclamation of “Fuck You, I will eat because my ancestors didn’t.”). I came to the bunkers in the back and read stories of those held and tortured there. Felt the power of reading one prisoner who shared my last name, his story and death. I thought a lot about my life. About what I’d be capable of in such circumstances. I wondered how my ancestors had such strength and will to live. As I walked this walk, I noticed, I did not feel sad. I actually did not feel anything. I was depressed, in the truest sense, devoid of all feeling, unable to emote. I wondered if this is what they felt. I craved so deeply to feel something.
The group came together and in silence we walked off in teams of two to share something about our experience with another. My partner took me outside the camp walls to a field, and together we collected flowers, various wild flowers grew in an unkempt field just outside these walls. I felt myself growing joyful. We took our bouquets, and soon came to the “Grave of Thousands of Unknown” where the ashes lay and grew a forest. I lay my bouquet down and whispered, “I know you.” The tears finally came, I was able to move toward healing.
The group gathered again for a finally ceremony on the land with honoring and prayers.
When we shared stories the next day. The experiences not only become more solid and real in the sharing but more so, each story transformed into healing. In the end, everything in me brought me up, out of my seat, to embrace this one German woman in particular, her story resonating with me deeply though language and lineage may have divided us, this connection and shared experience bridged any gaps in our stories, and provided profound healing, I believe, for everyone in the circle.
I walked away from this experience with lots of still present questions and thoughts; but mostly, from this dark place, I have come to believe the resilience of my ancestors was all toward a desire for life, for them and those that they would come after them. Thus, I walk away resolute, from now on, to not only walk in the grass, but to dance in it!
Honor ancestors, bridge in community, and join us in the discovery of how the dark places can inform who we are and what we do. Oaks Counsel has various offering in Nature-based and Rites-of-Passage practices.