Don’t Go There

As a Jew and a Briton, Henry Shukman had avoided all things German. But he said yes when asked him to teach at a zendo in the Black Forest.

Henry Shukman
10 September 2012
Illustration by Kim Scafuro

When I first reached Sonnenhof, I thought I had stepped into a Tang Dynasty landscape painting. High up an implausibly steep valley side, a large old building perched like a dragon’s lair, wrapped in several stories of dark wooden balconies. Part chalet, part ancient temple, it felt like at any moment the whole structure might drop off the hillside and swoop down into the ravine.

Yet at the same time—enhancing the Tang effect—the building had an extraordinarily settled feel, as if its very fabric had welded with the earth on which it stood. As soon as I arrived and was shown to my second-floor room, commanding a precipitous view down the valley, I felt inexplicably at home, as if some part of me belonged here. There was the calm tidiness of the simple room, with its table and small bed and bare wood shelves stocked with a handful of books on Zen. There was that view, and a welcoming bowl of fruit and bottle of mineral water—but there was something else too, indefinable yet palpable: a sense of familiarity, as if I already knew this place, and it knew me.

I put it down to the dharma. Sonnenhof, a center for Zen and contemplation in the Black Forest of Germany, was founded by my own teacher, Joan Rieck Roshi. Obviously, I had a karmic connection to it. In some ways the center itself has evolved over some twenty-two years to be an expression of her teaching, which is the teaching of Yasutani Roshi and Yamada Roshi that I have also received. This building has developed as a receptacle and conveyor of that teaching: small wonder that it should feel so familiar, so welcoming, and so much like home.

Yet dharma was not the whole answer. There was more.

I am a British Jew. Throughout my childhood I absorbed, explicitly and subliminally, so much anti-German sentiment that by the time I reached adulthood, curious though I was about other European countries, I had no interest in Germany. I’d taken one compulsory overnight visit to the country as a child, while touring with a school choir, and a two-hour trip into Freiburg from France as a youth, where the drive down a tree-lined autobahn reminded me chillingly of a highway I’d once seen in a Nazi propaganda film. Soon after, I made a silent promise not to visit Germany again. It was too hard. My father’s extended family had all come from Poland and Ukraine. They were erased from history during the Second World War. The past was too awful, the sins too great. The history was simply too painful. It was easier to have nothing to do with the place.

I stuck to my promise. In my mid-twenties I even gave up a well-funded Ph.D. on Homer when it became clear I was going to have to learn German to read all that country’s great classical scholarship. I developed my own private embargo not just against Germany but all things Ger- man. And somehow, I never really questioned the rightness of this attitude. It seemed inherently, inviolably right, and I found plenty of encouragement among my Jewish and English friends.

I was brought up on the Second World War. It was the great mythology on which we were reared in England. In my case, it was a dual history: on the one side, the heroic British commandos giving sadistic Gestapo agents what for with their Tommy guns; and on the other, the Holocaust, the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of pale bodies bulldozed into the black Polish mud or incinerated into its low skies. Among them, somewhere, were the unnumbered members of my father’s family. But we didn’t talk about them.

Once when I asked my father why we had lost no family in the war, he shrugged and said, “What are you talking about, boychick? My mum, my dad, they both had scores of relatives in Poland.”

He’d never mentioned them before. All I could think to say was: “What happened to them?”

Which only elicited another shrug. “What do you think? You never heard of Hitler?”

I was shocked. And I picked up the sense that the whole subject was more or less like Germany itself: Don’t go there. Nor did our losses end with those distant relatives. Not content with slaughtering all the lost uncles, aunts, and cousins, the Germans had also landed a V-2 rocket right on the roof of my grandfather’s tailoring workshop in Soho, central London, after which he was never again able to own his own workshop. To hate Germany may have been a prejudice, but it was a fine one, even a laudable one. It was right to cauterize the immense wound Germany had caused, to cut it away, to exclude it from our world. Our world would continue to turn. It just wouldn’t have Germany in it.

Yet it did have Germany in it. It does. The Holocaust happened, and here we are now, nearly seventy years on, and Germany is still in our world.

And here I was now, on German soil. Somehow, in spite of all my best resolutions, I was not just in Germany but in Schwarzwald, Germany’s heartland. And not just that, but about to help lead a Zen retreat for nearly fifty German students. How had this happened? What was I doing here?

The strongest convictions are apt to melt in the course of Zen training. That may be in large part what the training is for. But my conviction that Germany had forever forsaken its right to a place in my world had apparently not melted. Or had it? Here I was, after all.

When my teacher asked me to join her in leading this retreat, I unhesitatingly said yes. If possible, I always tried to do what she asked. She is an extraordinarily modest and clear teacher. In spite of having guided hundreds of students along the Zen path, she is all but unknown, except to her students. To know her you have to find her. Your karma has to bring you to her. Naturally, if I could, I did what she said. Germany? Wherever. What did it matter? This was about the dharma, something entirely transnational. And anyway, I had surely grown up by now, matured in my attitude toward history. Wasn’t all human history a chronicle of tyranny, cruelty, and trauma? Sitting zazen was one way of facing and releasing trauma.

Yet in the months, then weeks, then days before the retreat, it became clear the upcoming visit to Germany was not so simple a matter after all. I started to feel afraid. I was scared of the feelings mostly: the unquenchable sorrow associated with such a vast horror, and the terror, and the rage, and other feelings I couldn’t even name.

And that was just me. How would the retreat participants react to having a Jew in their midst? They might prefer not to have to reflect on their national history with the Jews. They might resent my presence. I hardly expected to meet rabid anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial—these were Zen students, after all—but I was apprehensive anyway. What were Germans like? I simply hadn’t known Germans. Most of all, though, I wondered if I was, merely by going there, betraying my own people.

As an assimilated, non-practicing half-Jew, I had ambivalent feelings about “my own people.” Categorized as Jewish by non-Jews, yet excluded from the tribe by Orthodox Jews, maybe I had clung to my boycott of Germany as one issue on which we could all agree. Perhaps hatred of Germany, however understandable, was also a way for an assimilated Jew to maintain a sense of belonging to the Jewish collective. But the feelings around the question were all the more disturbing—all the more murky, indistinct, and confused—for being collective. Were they really my own feelings or Jews’ in general, which I had absorbed by osmosis? It was hard to separate.

But now that I was in Germany, I was loving it. Not only did the center feel like an old Zen temple from the Golden Age of Zen, it had hosted so many retreats over the decades that the very bones of the building seemed to support our practice. In dreams and in zazen, I met a local earth entity, a dragon, called forth by our practice to help us in our surrender to Kanzeon and the dharma.

More mundanely, I was loving the food: potatoes, soups, rye bread, and applesauce. It was like Jewish food. Actually, much of it was Jewish food. I was loving the people too—not just their shared commitment to the Zen way, their deep friendliness, their emotional honesty and readiness to surrender self-protective versions of themselves. More than that, the men had rich, resonant voices and voluminous presences that reminded me of my father’s Jewish friends when I was a kid. The quality of their deportment, of their bodies, the sound of their voices, the sadness that was in their laughter— it all seemed Jewish. And the women laughed and wept just like Jewish women, their faces creasing up as if their mirth was soaked in sadness, and their sadness steeped in mirth.

I was beginning to sense just how much Jewish culture is actually German, or vice versa. Even Yiddish is German, after all. Seven or eight hundred years of living in Germany left the two cultures inextricably entwined. If we were sworn enemies, were we also somehow siblings? It began to seem to me that a friendship, an intimate relationship, had been ruined, destroyed perhaps forever, by a frenzy of madness, a ruthless orgy of industrialized murder. Was it possible that today, now, what mattered more than the millions of murders was the broken relationship and its healing?

I felt such affinity with the land too. Those deep old valleys of Central Europe had been a Jewish homeland for so long. I sensed an emptiness here, an absence in the bare, grassy slopes, and began to wonder if the land itself missed the Jews, if in some way it was happy to have a Jew here once more, treading its paths.

And I did tread them. A network of footpaths threads through the Black Forest, and it was possible to go hiking for an hour or two in several different directions and meet with a few cows or goats, and now and then another hiker. There were pine woods and deciduous trees, and precipitous slopes with little burnished-roofed villages glinting at the bottom. There were farmsteads with large pitched roofs and tremendous stores of firewood neatly stacked. It was somehow like a cross between the Lake District of northern England and the forested hills of Poland, where many of my forebears had lived.

As my first talk was approaching, I began to feel uneasy again. Would I be betraying myself and all Jews if I said nothing? But what would I say? In short, I didn’t know whether to bring up the Holocaust, and my Jewishness, or not. I had been planning to talk about Ganto and Seppo, two great masters of the Tang period, and just stick to Zen. But if I didn’t address the matter at all, it might intensify and grow, and come to overshadow the whole sesshin. More than anything, I realized, I was experiencing a great well of sadness. I decided I had to talk about it, about how it felt to be Jewish in Germany and about what had happened to the relationship of these two peoples.

Ich bin ein halb-Jude,” I began with trepidation, but hoping that somehow, as often happens with things we dread, this could turn out to be a powerful and healing experience for everyone.
The cat was out of the bag and there was no going back. I found myself giving up all sense of control, letting the talk go where it wanted.

What became clear, then and through the rest of the retreat, was that whatever horrific trauma was inflicted on the Jewish people by Hitler, Germans today are also still traumatized by their country’s killing orgy. What Germany had done to “us Jews” had wounded Germany too. Monstrous cruelty inflicts a cruelty on the perpetrators as well as the victims. It was as if the country were still shocked by the madness that had seized it two generations ago. They too needed healing.

Once I saw that, something remarkable began to happen. For the rest of the retreat people came and wept with me, with relief and gratitude. The source of suffering might be different for each of us, but we could still meet in the commonality of our suffering itself. It was precisely there that healing could be found. What a burden they had been carrying, an unexpungible guilt, a permanent stamp of shame they felt wherever they went in the world. When abroad, Germans often feel that just to admit they are German is an act of penance. There was no escape from it. The sins of the fathers had been visited upon the sons and daughters.

That was part of what I learned during the sesshin. But this wasn’t just about the rights and wrongs of collective forgiving or forgetting. It was also about someone—me—who thought he knew how to forgive and discovered he did not. I still felt, fundamentally, that forgiveness was mine to give or withhold. By holding on to my prejudice against Germany, however historically justifiable it might be, I had been trying to control something—the horror, the scale of the devastation, the overwhelming human tragedy. But as hardness melted in the dharma of the sesshin, it became clear that forgiveness was a larger force than any one of us, and that as long as I believed myself to be the bestower or withholder of it, I could not truly forgive anything at all. I didn’t know until now that when we forgive, we are also forgiven. So if we are convinced we don’t need forgiving—only those other people do—then we can’t forgive.

Real forgiveness is not ours; it works through us. It involves a more radical kind of letting go. It’s like the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we let go of our begrudging, our hating, our judging, and hold nothing back; if we surrender our conviction that we have the true handle on a situation, and it’s us who see things right; if instead we surrender to the vast field of not-knowing; if we really allow ourselves not to know what’s going on, or what is best, then a deeper love can flow. We discover that a small version of ourselves had still been in command, still believing it “knew” the true situation and could “assess” where and how much forgiveness to dispose and how much to refrain from bestowing.

This means that even if I decide, Okay, I forgive them, I have still somehow missed the point. I haven’t said, True forgiveness is a force greater than I am. I must give up my attachment to being right—even if I am right! Until I accept that, as Master Setcho said, “Under the shadowless tree all people are in one boat,” I won’t know the healing tide of real forgiveness. None of us is immune to violent urges, after all, none innocent of the poison of anger. No matter how the Holocaust may surpass all other human horrors, every one of us surely comes from a lineage that includes perpetrators of cruelty and violence. But the moment we surrender our judgmental mind and forgive just as we recognize our need to be forgiven, we plunge into Kan-zeon’s vast ocean of forgiveness and our fundamental innocence is miraculously restored to us.

We are not separate from one another. “Not two” is the basic teaching of Bodhidharma and the generations of Zen masters. By bringing Jew and German together, Joan Rieck Roshi had once again demonstrated the perfect functioning of the Tao. A healing was needed, and without planning or forethought, she had let it happen. That’s why I’m grateful to have broken my vow and gone to Germany last summer.

Henry Shukman

A Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage, Henry Shukman teaches at Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe. He grew up in Oxford, England, and came to New Mexico in 1991 to write Savage Pilgrims, a memoir about searching for D. H. Lawrence’s past. Shukman has published seven books; his latest novel, The Lost City, was a New York Times editors’ choice.