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SOAPBOX: Dan Hoen Hull was surprised on his trip to Auschwitz with a group of Buddhists

On KJZZ's  SOAPBOX, The Show turns over the the mic to listeners. In our latest series, listeners tell their own true stories on the theme of Summer Camp. 

When we asked local writers to tell us about summer camp experiences, we weren’t expecting to hear about the time a group of Buddhists traveled to Auschwitz. Storyteller Dan Hoen Hull was surprised by what happened, as well.

Dan Hull pictured standing to the right of his teacher
Dan Hull
Dan Hull (right) standing next to his teacher before the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau

I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau for a week in the summer of 2010 with an international Buddhist group to bear witness, meditate and recite Kaddish. Admittedly, I entered the camp in my Zen robes filled with self-righteousness. Going through the Holocaust Museum at Auschwitz, I was horrified, devastated and broken. I asked myself, “My God, how could THEY have done this?”

A photo from the Holocaust Museum at Auschwitz
Dan Hull
A photo from the Holocaust Museum at Auschwitz

On the second day of the trip, a Japanese man tapped me on the shoulder and asked me, “What country?”

I said, “America.”

He shook his head and pointed to my robes, “No, what country?”

I smiled at him. “Zen. Soto School. Japan.”

He smiled back at me. Without another word, we each put our hands in gassho and bowed to each other. Although being in Auschwitz had shattered my heart in pieces, I walked into the next room of the museum feeling warm and fuzzy from the human connection I had just made, until I saw a picture that reminded me Japan was an ally to Germany in WWII. I remembered that Zen Buddhism inspired young Japanese men to fly their planes into American ships. Kamikaze, divine wind.

I looked down at my Zen Buddhist robes and asked myself, “My God, how could WE have done this?” I didn’t wear my robes in Auschwitz for the rest of the week. Others did. I just couldn’t.

Birkenau Tower entrance
Dan Hull
Birkenau Tower entrance

View from inside the Birkenau Tower
Dan Hull
View from inside the Birkenau Tower

A few days later, I was in the back of Birkenau witnessing what was left of the gas chambers. In an attempt to hide their war crimes, the Nazis blew them up. All that is left are four giant ditches. I was startled by the sound of teenagers and looked up to see a class of Polish high school students on the other side of the ditch. At first, I was moved by the fact that these young people were given the chance to face this place in person. They were not just reading about it in a book. Perhaps, I thought, this experience will help them to make better choices.

Gas chamber ruins from Auschwitz-Birkenau
Dan Hull
Gas chamber ruins from Auschwitz-Birkenau

Then my focus moved to three students at the back of the group. I don’t speak Polish, but it was clear that two taller students were taunting and bullying a smaller one. I could see the shame on the smaller student’s face as he looked down at his shoes. The other two walked away from him laughing.

In that moment, I was filled with rage. I thought to myself how could THEY do this? How could THEY be cruel to another human being in THIS place?

And I knew, if there wasn’t a gas chamber ditch between us, I would have smacked them for hurting him like that.

Then it hit me. Oh my God, how can I be filled with such hostility? In a Nazi death camp!?

I’m supposed to a compassionate Buddhist! Why am I STILL capable of hating in the face of this devastatingly sacred space?

And I asked myself, “How could I have done this?”

Candles in Birkenau
Dan Hull
Candles in Birkenau

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