Reflections on Auschwitz and the plight of the Roma

I was at a conference on the Roma in Krakow over the weekend.  Part of the trip included a trip to Auschwitz.  I thought I would share some of the thoughts I had from my visit.

First, Auschwitz is the natural, logical, end result of hatred and racism.  I think a very useful way of testing whether a thought is virtuous or not is by asking ourselves “what is the end result of this train of thought?”  Anger mistakenly blames others for our problems, and generates the wish to harm the object of our anger.  The end result, the logical end, of human anger is Auschwitz.  Why would we allow even the slightest trace of this horrible mind to remain within us?

Second, samsara gives us impossible moral dilemmas every day.  I was told a story of a sister who was in the camp.  She knew it was just a matter of time before her pregnant younger sister and elderly mother would be brought to the camp.  The Nazis would automatically send any woman carrying a baby and all old people to the gas chambers.  One day the sister saw her mother and younger sister arrive on the train carrying the baby.  She knew how the camp worked but she knew her sister did not.  In an effort to save at least one of them, she told her younger sister to give the baby to the mother without explaining why.  The Nazis took the mother and the baby away and sent the younger sister into the work camp.  When the younger sister found out what had happened, she never forgave her older sister for having told her to give the baby to the mother.  What would we do when faced with impossible choices like this?  To a lesser extent, samsara gives us choices between two bads every day.

Third, the Roma are the forgotten victims of the holocaust.  Approximately 500,000 Roma were killed in the holocaust, and they were treated exactly as the Jews were with the same intention of extermination.  But within Europe, discrimination against the Roma is still an acceptable form of discrimination.  In many countries, they are still called “parasites” by mainstream politicians who call for their being rounded up and put into what can only be described as concentration camps.  For 60 years the Roma have been fighting to get recognized as holocaust victims.  I met this weekend the man who has been leading this charge.  The work was actually started by his father, and the son is continuing the work.  Only in the last 6 years have the Roma finally been given a building for an exposition at Auschwitz, a memorial by the furnaces and a memorial in the “gypsy city” within the camp where on one night several thousand were shot and killed just for Nazi fun.  One of the reasons why it is so taboo to be racist against Jews is because everybody knows what happened to them in the holocaust.  I can only hope through the efforts of brave civil rights activists like the man I met this weekend it can become similarly taboo to be racist against the Roma.  There are laws against denying the holocaust, yet it has been considered acceptable to deny the genocide against the Roma.  Why?  Racism projects the mistakes of a few on an entire group.  Yes, there are some Roma who steal and engage in forced begging, but the vast majority are people like you and me who struggle to survive.  More accurately, I think the Roma can be viewed as 10 million homeless people shunned by the whole world with nowhere to go.  After you have lived like that for a few centuries, then decide whether you want to judge them for the mistakes made by some in their community.  Really, what is the difference between some of the criminal bankers on Wall Street and some of the criminal Roma?  The difference is only how well they dress and the amount and methods by which they steal (no, I am not saying all bankers on Wall Street are criminals, check my language carefully).

Fourth, dehumanization is the precursor to genocide.  Both the Jews and still to this day the Roma were considered an inferior race.  Because they were “inferior”, they didn’t matter as much and it became OK to treat them worse and worse until finally they became like cockroaches that needed to be killed.  As Buddhists, we go one step further and equate all living beings, human and non-human alike, as being equally precious.  Shantideva says we should realize that each being is just as precious as a Buddha.  The sign that we still have deluded discrimination in our mind is when we consider any being to somehow be less precious than a Buddha.

Fifth, we are all in Auschwitz.  Samsara is a death camp, pure and simple.  It is powered by delusion and the end result for all of us is ritual slaughter.  The only difference between Auschwitz and samsara is speed and intensity.  There were some Jewish people who worked with the Nazis in the gas chambers believing that if they did so, somehow they might survive.  But every two months, they would round them all up and kill them all in a surprise.  Our thinking we can cooperate with samsara is no different than these ill-fated victims who thought they could cooperate with the Nazis and survive.  We make all sorts of bargains with our delusions thinking we can somehow get away with it.  We never can.  Likewise, the Nazis system of control was largely based on lies aimed at creating false hopes.  People so want to believe that it will work out and people so want to deny the horror of the rumors they had heard that they willingly believed the lies and were then led, like sheep, to slaughter.  We are the same with samsara’s lies and its promises of false hope.  We are little different than those in the photos, naked in the forest having a picnic thinking they were waiting their turn for their “shower”.  Many people say there is no way the German people did not know what the Nazis were doing.  While some surely did, after visiting the camp and learning how people moments before their murder still held onto willful denial and ignorance, I can see how the average German could do the same.  We are little different.  All of us have received teachings on the horrors of samsara, yet we still do not engage these as truths because if we did, we would not behave the same nor maintain the same priorities.

At Auschwitz, they make a point of saying of the 8,000 SS who worked at the camps, only about 10% were ever “brought to justice for their crimes.”  It is the desire for revenge that keeps the cycle of slaughter going.  As hard as it is to do, I think it is very important as Kadampas that we view the Nazis as equal victims of the holocaust of delusions.  They became possessed by their delusions, their delusions compelled them to enage in unbelievably horrific actions, and they are now experiencing the fruits of their actions in hell.  Ghandi said the oppressor is unfree when he oppresses. When we can find it in our hearts to also view the Nazis as victims of their delusions and generate compassion for the terrible sufferings they must be experiencing in hell then our compassion has the potential to become universal.  But for as long as we still wish harm on anybody and don’t feel equal compassion for oppressor and oppressed (which are separated only by time, not by fate), then we will never generate the compassion of a Buddha.  I know what I am saying here can be misinterpreted and misunderstood if one tries.  I am not justifying in any way what happened nor belittling in any waythe suffering metted out against the victims, rather I am trying to take a more expanded view that sees the karmic tragedy of delusion and karma as it plays out over the expanse of time.

Your turn:  what does the holocaust and the plight of the Roma mean to you?

5 thoughts on “Reflections on Auschwitz and the plight of the Roma

  1. Wow! Thanks for this post. It is really good that you have asked this question. I almost feel ashamed to say that I was not very aware of the fact that the Roma were treated so badly in the holocaust. I also have very personal experience of knowing people who are very racist against the Roma, especially because of that small minority who misuse the system. And I do find it difficult to not get carried away by that delusion myself. I have to keep reminding myself that they are being deluded because of their strong tendencies from having done similar things in the past. And that they dont realise how much suffering they are creating for themselves.
    It is also very sad that the vast majority of the Roma are suffering the consequences of the few whose actions are wrong.
    It is definitely one of those karmic things that the Jewish created the causes to have so much awareness about their situation while the Roma didnt.
    It is almost similar to the situation of us Dorje Shugden practitioners. People all over the world have some awareness about the Tibetan situation in general but very few even know about the doubly traumatic situation of Tibetan Dorje Shugden practitioners and us Kadampas.
    When you write that we all need to feel the same compassion for the Nazis as we feel for the Jewish and Roma, I agree with you completely but it is for me as difficult as feeling compassion for the Dalai Lama for what he has been doing to the Kadampas. However I know from my own little experience how my mind opens up when I view him with compassion not anger and hatred. This is definitely something I need to train my mind in a lot.

    • Compassion, I think, is definitely a good mental reaction to the misguided actions of the Dalai Lama and some of his followers. One could easily say their attitude towards DS practitioners created, in part at least, the causes for what has happened to them at the hands of the Chinese. For me personally, however, I far more often view him as an emanation of a Buddha, who with VGL and DS, got together and invented this whole polemic to teach people about reliance upon the spiritual guide, lineage, not mixing, etc. It seems a far more plausible (and beneficial) view which helps take the sting and anger out of our minds towards him. Instead, we develop a feeling of gratitude! This doesn’t mean we don’t still need to protest, etc., but our protest then becomes viewed as his gift to us: he has created the ban so we have the opportunity to protest and thereby to create the causes to have our own religious freedom protected in the future. How kind of him to suffer from our exposing him so that we can create such causes for our practice!

      • Wow! Thanks for that Ryan.
        When someone else told me they view him as an emanation of a Buddha, I got very upset with them thinking they were being very silly and taking the easy way out of a difficult situation. I definitely have to rethink and meditate on it!

  2. The basic, simple meditation on a chief refuge vow: not to harm others, is a virtuous determination – this is the real start of compassion.

    You may dislike many many people, you may wonder how it is possible to attain enlightenment if you hate others, then you will know that this is the beginning.

    Non-harm is a spacious, open mind. We may still discriminate others as undesirable but if we at least hold this determination, then we realize inside that it feels better.

    There is no one harming us.

    When we practice this vow, we see that our own karma, actions, have harmed us.

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