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Lions Roar : November 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2012 42 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. Obvi- ously, 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 famil- iar, 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 adult- hood, curious though I was about other European coun- tries, I had no interest in Germany. I’d taken one compul- sory 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 noth- ing 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 coun- try’s great classical scholarship. I developed my own pri- vate embargo not just against Germany but all things Ger- man. And somehow, I never really questioned the right- ness 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 Holo- caust, the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of pale bodies bulldozed into the black Polish mud or inciner- ated 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. Y ET 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 train- ing 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 stu- dents along the Zen path, she is all but unknown, except to her students. To know her you have to find her. Your HENRY SHUKMAN is a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage. His latest novel, The Lost City, was a New York Times editors’ choice.