Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Letters from Josef

Back in Canada, I felt worlds away from war and the un-wept tears flooding Germany and Eastern Europe that summer. I was convinced that I had somehow resurrected my own corpse, over there in Poland, simply by returning to the gas chamber and walking out of it alive. I was finally, totally free.
Of course, I couldn’t talk to anyone about this. I read the books I bought at the bookstore in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and waited for something to happen. It seemed logical to think that, having visited the place where I had died in my last lifetime, I had smashed a barrier, shredded a veil, taken a walk between worlds. This event would resolve some ancient issues, and help me gain new perspective on my life. Maybe, magically, something would surface that would light the path ahead of me.

I was right. Something did surface. Of course, it was not quite the “resurrection” I had in mind.

One evening I browsed the internet in search of holocaust memoirs. I came across a website belonging to a young man in Pennsylvania who said he was the reincarnation of Dr. Josef Mengele.

The website, which was dedicated to “the greatest war criminal of the twentieth century,” had been up for a few months. I was curious

A 22-year-old man in Pennsylvania, Joseph Muller, was claiming to be the reincarnation of Mengele. I can think of very few novelists who could spin a convincing story out of something so outlandish, even trite. Here, however, was a 22-year-old who had put together a documentary, including much detailed research, archival photos, and his own personal writing about being Mengele. It took all evening to read from beginning to end and was almost a book in itself -- well beyond what one would expect from a young man in his early twenties.

Not that parts of it were not disturbing, to say the least. If it had not rung at all true, it would have been a terrible waste of creative energy. What was so odd, was that this boy obviously believed he was Mengele. He also seemed, at times, to be fully aware of what that meant, in terms of the need to explain himself. Quite clearly, he was trapped in the overwhelming irony of having to account for deeds which, at their core, were unspeakable.

As I read, I recalled how the clinic at Auschwitz remains closed to the public, an indication of how little we really know about this man and his ugly career. But here was some kid living in Nowhere, Pennsylvania, trying to bring it out into the open. At times, he might have been writing from Transylvania. Part of him was a cartoon, yet even that part bore a disquieting resemblance to reality.

Joseph Muller was obsessed with details of Mengele’s life. He seemed to bask in the reflected notoriety of a man everyone hated, whose crimes were beyond imagining and perhaps were best kept secret and hidden from humanity.

Stubbornly, with an air of preaching, he spelled out his politics in prose which could be colourful, pompous, or dry, depending. He was not a neo-Nazi, he said, and had no respect for those who embraced the ideology of the Third Reich without having lived through its madness.

One thing was certain: he was not kidding. Whatever his shortcomings as a writer, Joseph Muller never slipped out of character, or veered too far into caricature. He always came across as exactly what he pretended to be: a young man in Pennsylvania, burdened by memories of having been a notorious monster.

He opened his autobiography with a photograph of Mengele’s son, Rolf, as a little boy, and a letter asking for forgiveness and understanding in language that conjured all the defensiveness and self-pity of an ageing war criminal, who nevertheless suffers from the fact that his own son has turned against him.

He went on to relate how he was born into this lifetime out of wedlock and unwanted by his mother, a young nurse in Pennsylvania who eventually placed him in a foster home. How, at age 11, in 1991, while his history teacher was talking to the class about the holocaust, he first saw a photo of the famous war criminal and found he somehow knew more about the man than was normal for a kid who, until that moment, had never even heard of Dr. Mengele.

Afterwards young Josef began writing poems and making drawings which seemed to unearth buried details from what, in his mind at least, could only be a past life as a doctor at Auschwitz.

He could call up horrific scenes, including memories of a field hospital near Stalingrad where, as a young doctor in 1942, Mengele dodged bullets on the battlefield while performing operations to save the wounded and dying. Awarded an Iron Cross for bravery in combat, he describes how as a 30-year-old SS doctor, officer and decorated war hero, he underwent a terrible transformation after the disastrous defeat of the German forces in Russia.

This, he writes, was when he lost his personality and became the embodiment of evil, totally indifferent to suffering and bloodshed – probably as a result of post traumatic stress. Having witnessed so much death and destruction, he lost the ability to feel anything for anyone. By the time his superiors in Berlin dispatched him to Auschwitz, in the spring of 1943, he was a psychopath, albeit a high functioning one. How could he care about trainloads of Jewish refugees filing past on the railway platform, on their way to a quick death? He had already seen so much suffering, their lives meant absolutely nothing to him.

Many people would recoil at the spectacle of a “reincarnated” war criminal trying to excuse himself by invoking a plea of insanity. At the beginning of 1945 Nuremberg trials, psychiatrists weeded out those deemed too deranged to stand trial, but Mengele never stood trial – his American captors released him supposedly by mistake.

Here is the reincarnated Mengele, who escaped justice for over 30 years, using a term, PTSD, that gained currency decades later, and using it in self-defence. And although I took young Muller’s confession with numerous grains of salt, and often with a shudder of distaste, I could not completely dismiss it. People who have never lived through violent combat are in no position to judge others, who have.

Of course, Josef Muller hadn’t really been in combat, either – unless you believe in the possibility that traumatic experiences can be transferred, or recalled, from one lifetime to the next.

What gave Josef’s story a touch of extra credibility at the beginning, was a testimonial by Eva Moses Kor. A former Mengele twin and Holocaust survivor, whose twin sister perished in Mengele’s clinic at Auschwitz, Kor is the founder of C.A.N.D.L.E.S. holocaust centre in Minneapolis, and has an international reputation as a writer and advocate for healing through forgiveness.

In her statement, published on Josef’s website, she describes their first contact, her initial reactions and questions, and how she gradually came to believe that Josef Muller might well be who he claimed to be.

Another “note of authenticity” came at the end where Josef included his e-mail address at, a combination of letters and numbers drawn from Mengele’s name and a certain model of BMW which Josef liked to drive at high speed around Pennsylvania -- at least until his accident.

I decided to see if this address actually worked. I wrote a message, and fired it off.


Subject: Dear Dr. Mengele
Date Tue, 25 Jun 2002 203314 EDT

Today I found your website, and after reading almost all of it, I have just come across your e-mail address. I was Visitor Number 101. To my surprise, I found I was quite moved by your story.

I am 51 years old, and have been having flashbacks to my death in the holocaust since childhood. I have just returned to my home in Canada from a trip to Poland, where I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in particularly crematorium I, at Auschwitz. This gas chamber is identical in size and shape to the one I found myself in during a hypnotic regression in 1998. I believe I arrived in the hospital wagon of a transport from (possibly) Breslau in the winter of 1941-42. Something tells me it was in mid-February.

I was a woman of about 30, and I had been involved with a group of young Poles from the cities who were blowing up German trains carrying supplies and soldiers en route to the Eastern Front. As I had been attacked and beaten in the train station, I could not walk and was taken immediately to the gas chamber. I was alone at the time of my death, and I remember noticing that the interior walls of the chamber had just been freshly whitewashed.

I am just beginning to write my own story, about my past life as a young German/Polish woman who was connected with the resistance. Like you, I am coming to terms with the effects of that lifetime on this one.

At Auschwitz I bought Dr. Nyiszli's book, I was Dr. Mengele's Assistant, and finished it about a week ago. The photo of Mengele in that book surprised me, as it did not seem to be the face of an evil man. I sometime give creative writing workshops. I believe writing is the most effective therapeutic tool for healing trauma.

Your memoir is very impressive. I believe it will help a lot of people to forgive themselves. Thank you for writing and publishing it.
Ann D.

After hitting “SEND,” I waited nervously. At hour later, his reply was in my mailbox. It was as if I had pressed a button on a coffin, and out popped Count Dracula.

I read, with a mixture of disbelief, fascination and irony:

Dear Ann,

Thank you for the compliments. I would like to go back to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Eva and I do plan on returning there in the upcoming years. We also plan on visiting my hometown of Gunzburg. I did intend on going back into medicine and science, but with the way HMO's are treating people in America, I do not wish to have my hands tied behind my back when I must save someone's life. What many of these people do not realize (the ones who choose to limit what a doctor can and cannot do) is that they are only hurting themselves in the end when it will be their turn to receive medical care. Also, my dream was to correct congenital defects while in utero, so that the woman won't need to bother with an abortion, and that a healthy baby will be born. This way I would create a win/win situation. Yet, I'm limited there as well due to the "Religious Right". Since medicine is not medicine anymore (with the exception of rare circumstances), and scientists have too many restrictions, I chose to focus on teaching the Holocaust. Back in April, I believe, I noticed in the paper that there are Ph.D.s for Genocide studies. I figured that, since I tend to be a bit "overqualified" for teaching the Holocaust, I might as well utilize my experiences to teach other people. In the end, I would like to become a "Holocaust Professor".

I might as well make the best use of being reincarnated, and I really couldn't think of any better way. I keep in touch with another reincarnated 'victim' of Auschwitz. Our friendship has brought in many ideas, and has done much healing, despite the fact that we're on opposite ends of the Atlantic. If you'd like to keep in touch with me, feel free to do so. And if you have any questions about the camp, experiments, or things related, don't hesitate to ask. Ironically, I've gotten along better with reincarnated 'victims' than one of the other reincarnated Nazis, who was a member of the Einsatzgruppen. I know, it's strange but true.

I'm still working on my book, and since I've become the official field doctor for a Feldlazaret, you'll start noticing photographs of me with the German Red Cross nurses (DRK nurses) popping up. I already have a collection that I will add next month from this year's WW2 re-enactment in Reading, Pa. Personally, my book will never be 'completely' done since the memories will go on forever. Currently I'm trying to finish getting my 1938 Inaugural Medical Dissertation on the book. I only have a few more pages to go, tends to be a pain in the gluteous maximus, if you know what I mean. I'm glad that you find my memoir healing. Writing it helped me understand myself better, and I believed that I just could not die and not have done this since I know that it will have a big impact on many. I would like to have more than just a tombstone to my name when I die. I don't intend on re-reincarnating either. I've had enough, and seen's nothing against the good people I've met, but I would like to spend my "spiritual life" back in Gunzburg, and with my brothers who I really miss. Therefore, I fully intend to make the best use of this time on earth.


He was certainly a complicated fellow, prone to operatic mood swings, hypersensitive to anything that could be taken as a personal slight, unforgiving if crossed: traits that also applied to the real Mengele. He boasted of having super-human powers: he could murder people just by focusing on them, mentally.

In my second e-mail, when I was still uncertain how to approach this correspondence I had flirted with his darker side:

Really, apart from my fear of rejection (as an older woman, I have to worry about such things), I'm also afraid that if we got involved and it didn't work out, you might give me a lethal injection. …Oh, I forgot to mention that I am a twin in this lifetime.

Perhaps he took this as a come-on. His reply was definitely peculiar:

I would have no reason to give you a lethal injection. Cripes, my criminal record is clean...well, at least this half is, and I'd like to keep it that way As an SS officer, we were not to have criminal records at all Therefore, all this SS discipline does pay off in the end.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Misericorde Hospital

I have been researching and writing about the dark side of psychiatry particularly in relation to secret Cold War LSD experiments on children in Montreal at McGill and elsewhere across Canada.

I have a photo of Doctors Ewen Cameron and and Heinz Lehmann standing with a group of other doctors outside the Misericorde hospital in Montreal in 1959. This was a hospital for. unwed mothers and also an orphanage. At the time Lehmann was directing the research institute of the Allan Memorial. What are two Mc Gill psychiatrists doing in a group photo on the steps of this hospital? What legitimate reason would they have to be there?

I am guessing the secret reason is they are setting up an agreement to get children for use in experiments. We know there were orphans living in a sealed off wing of the Allan in those years.

Cameron and Lehmann were key figures in what appears to have been a eugenics program operating out of McGill. Lehmann had trained in Nazi Germany at precisely the universities where the infamous T4 eugenics program was developed. He came to Quebec in 1937 and was soon placed in charge of a major psychiatric hospital known as a place where patients were zombified with drugs and ECT.

There was also a link with New York and Massachusetts hospitals and military bases like Plattsburgh AF base known to have used trafficked orphans from Quebec in classified experiments. Some of this information comes from surviving orphans.

Cameron worked with Dr Nolan D C Lewis from the NY Psychiatric Institute where a Nazi doctor Franz Kalman had run a eugenics program since the 1930s. Lewis worked with Cameron giving LSD to children in the 1950s at McGill.

They needed a lot of children in those days and Quebec was a baby factory, with the highest birth rate in the western world.



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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Allergic to Gas

May 30, 2002
I didn’t plan on visiting Auschwitz on the 59th anniversary of Mengele’s arrival at the clinic there. If such had been my plan, I could have waited another year, and then it would have been the 60th anniversary, a more significant marker. Not that that occurred to me – and even if I had known of it at the time, I would not have chosen to commemorate the Angel of Death’s first day as medical director of a death camp. And anyway, I was marking my anniversary, not that of the “Angel of Death.”

The day I went to Auschwitz -- May 30, 2002 -- also happened to be Corpus Christi, or Feast of the Pentecost. Not a holiday I normally celebrate at the scene of a mass grave. In fact I never celebrate it at all, although I have no trouble believing the Holy Spirit can descend on us at any time and cause us to speak in tongues, or no human language . Looking back, the timing of that also seems appropriate.

Dr. Anna Novak, the cousin of a friend of mine, came along with me to Auschwitz that day. Anna is an allergy specialist. This was one of those odd coincidences because in a roundabout way, my allergies had brought me to Poland. For much of my life, I had suffered from respiratory problems. Childhood pneumonia at age 3, followed by chronic bronchitis at 11, and later, allergies.

Anna proved very open to my eccentric notion that some of my lingering respiratory issues stemmed from my death in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1942. Allergic reactions, she told me, can be triggered by all sorts of things – even a photograph of a plant or flower to which one is allergic. So it made sense, to Anna, that I was allergic to gas chambers. Especially if I had died in one.

Because it was Corpus Christi that day, and Poland is a devoutly Christian nation, the road that wound through the countryside after we left the main highway from Krakow, was strewn with flowers from a procession that had passed an hour before. We drove those last few kilometers over fronds and scattered petals. Overnight it had rained, and clouds still hung overhead but you could see the sun trying to break through the curtain of mist in places. I remember I had a sense of floating in the dampness of a dull yet dreamlike landscape. Anna was driving, and I was gazing out the window, trying to make something of the scenery, which was lush, chaotic and formless -- nothing like the disciplined German vegetation I was more used to.

We came to the town of Chrzanow – familiar through a friend whose mother was deported from that village, along with her six sisters, none of whom survived the war. My friend had asked me to look out for that place-name on the way to Auschwitz, and here it was.

As we cut through the shabby centre, I looked for signs of a cemetery, or other remnants of the pre-war era, but there was only post-communist greyness and decaying modernity as in a project which has been aborted or abandoned. There was life, but I knew it was nothing like life had been back in the days when it had been her mother’s village. That old life was gone like the people, and existed only in photographs like the one I found on a wall later that day in one of the buildings at Auschwitz, showing men and women of Chrzanow being led away by German soldiers in caps and steel helmets. It looks like a morning in early spring, and the people wear their coats unbuttoned as they file to the train, unaware that they are leaving this familiar world, forever.

Anna and I had been on the road since yesterday morning. Our sightseeing trip had taken us from Anna’s home in Wroclaw the day before, over to the capital of Warsaw to visit a government office where she was applying for a visa to Canada.

After having coffee in a famous cafe, we continued south to Krakow – a circular marathon through countryside flooded in many places from the heavy rains that year. Along the way, we stopped to buy strawberries from local farmers at a roadside stand. For a few zlotys, you got a large basket of the juiciest, most delicious fruit imaginable. But here on this small rural road, which had just seen a religious parade go by, there were no fruit vendors. It felt like Sunday although it was Thursday. In no time, it seemed we had left the mist behind and arrived at the village of Oswiecim – less than 2 km from the infamous death camp. I remember passing the abandoned slave labour factory that had once been IG Farben’s, at the edge of the village where the rails veer off to the left.

Parallel to the tracks, the road ran to the entrance to the parking lot of Auschwitz. We were at our destination. Walking away from Anna’s car, I almost ran to the Arbeit Macht Frei gate. I had expected it to be enormous, but it was much smaller than I had imagined.

I had brought the wrong clothes, thinking the weather would be hot, but in defiance of all the predictions it remained wet and freezing. In the photos Anna took, my hair is flying out from my head. I’m dressed as if for a camping trip where bears made off with my clothes leaving me in my pajamas. In some photos, I seem detached from surrounding reality. Often I am smiling, as if actually “enjoying Auschwitz” although that was not my intention. The truth was I didn’t want to be photographed and would have preferred to drift around the place, invisible, just taking it in.

In a way, I was glad to be “back.” Sixty years had passed since the day in February 1942, when a transport arrived carrying hundreds of Polish workers, labour organizers, intellectuals and resistance fighters to their deaths. The Final Solution had been formulated by Himmler at the Wannsee Conference one year earlier, and it would be four months before mass deportation of Jews from their ghettos to Auschwitz began the following summer of 1942. Before it was used to exterminate the Jews in their millions, the system had first to be tested on other enemies of the Reich who were being rounded up in great numbers at that time.

That transport had left Wroclaw on Valentine’s Day, 1942, and arrived late the same night at its destination. Had “I” been on that train? The full horror of that trip had surfaced four years earlier during a past life regression, back in Montreal, and was hard to dismiss or ignore. Under hypnosis, intended to pinpoint the source of certain fears and unconscious phobias that were interfering in my life, a few faint images had coalesced into a nightmarish physical reliving of a ride in a freezing box car that ended at the gas chamber.

When it was over, there was no doubt in my mind that what I had just relived was real. I was sweating from every pore, as if I had just run several miles. In reality, I was lying on a mattress on the floor, the therapist next to me pounding on my back and urging me to cough out all the gas that remained in my lungs from that other lifetime.

More details came up as I researched the period. Further flashbacks took me back to wartime Europe. I saw myself as a woman in her twenties in a long black trench coat, bicycling from place to place delivering money and papers to people in the underground. Some were young people from the city, who had moved into the woods and were blowing up German trains with homemade explosives. I saw myself involved with a young Wehrmacht officer who was helping the Resistance by providing information about things like Nazi troop movements and plans. We would meet in a small single-room building near railway tracks in the countryside. In fact, these small buildings, which might be storage facilities, can still be seen beside the railroads in Germany and Poland. That life had come to a sudden end in a train station in a city which might have been Wroclaw, where we were rounded up early one February morning and shipped to Auschwitz.

On a quest that became an obsession, I decided to travel back to Poland and retrace that long day’s journey sixty years earlier. I would go there in my new, or slightly “used” 50-year-old body. There would be much to catch up on and explore.
We began with the photographs of thousands of camp inmates, attached to identity cards lining the walls of the first exhibit. I stared into one face after another, thinking one of the faces might trigger another memory or flashback.

There is much to see at Auschwitz. A day is barely enough. There is the famous room with its glass display of shoes and human hair. Outside are the trademark guard towers, the encircling barbed wire fences stretching into the distance, and the endless rows of barracks. Auschwitz is a ghost town with its own literature and history, and of course its own architecture of repression and torture stretching back into the nightmare that gave rise to Nazi Germany.

I had my limited, personal agenda. I wanted to verify a number of peculiarities from my regression, four years earlier. I wanted to walk the same route I would have travelled in 1942 as an injured woman on a transport carrying hundreds of others. By my reckoning, it took less than two hours to be hauled out of the hospital wagon and straight to the gas chamber, in a small cart that ran on rails alongside the train tracks.

The first thing I looked for at Auschwitz was that small set of rails running parallel to the main tracks where the transports unloaded their passengers. They were there. As for the cart, I found one at Birkenau later that day.

The former kitchen was in a large building now housing an exhibition of photos dating from the war. I was reading the captions and moving from photo to photo, when I came to a halt in front of one. At the centre of the blurred photo, a small ragged band of Jewish partisans were gathered in the woods. Some proudly displayed their guns. Many were smiling for the camera. All of them were likely long dead. Oddly, I began reacting to the photo before I had even made out what it was. Tears welled up, and a feeling of sobbing and choking – which made it hard to decipher the caption before I bent forward to see the faces.

Outside, I pulled myself together. It seemed I had just met my old friends. Continuing my walk through the streets with their brown brick buildings, built by slave labour, I came to the Wall of Death, which stands to the left of the Gestapo prison also known as Block 11.

Next door to this bleak courtyard where prisoners were shot after being interrogated and tortured in the prison on the right, is Block 10, the infamous clinic operated by Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death,” SS Doctor Josef Mengele.

A black sign with white letters, reading “HOTEL KRANKENHAUS -- CHIRURGISCHE – ABT,” marked the facade behind which experiments were done on dozens of children, many of them twins. They’ve since renovated it, remodelled the steps, painted the door a rusty brown, reopened the two small windows which were bricked in the day I visited, and removed the black and white signs. The day I visited, there was also a No Smoking sign – I’m not sure why -- and the street number 21 was clearly posted out front. The clinic remains closed to this day. The horrors that went on inside, considered beyond the pale of the imaginable, exist in a category of inhumanity defying description or inquiry.

In this photo, taken by Anna, the door behind me appears to be standing half open. It seems possible to look inside, or even enter the building although I remember it being permanently closed to visitors. Until now, I never looked carefully at this photo, never noticed the half-open door or the reddish fog spreading down from one corner of the roof. It looks as if blood is staining the branches of the tree and the brick wall of the building. On the left is the digital date “5 30” – day of Mengele’s arrival exactly 59 years earlier. If you look closely, a figure like that of a doctor with a handlebar moustache, wearing a two piece suit, seems to be peering out of the left-hand second floor window. In the window on the right, skeletal faces and bodies are pressed against the glass.

But of course, these are all mere illusions, tricks of light or bad film processing. Holding my guidebook, posing for Anna on the steps, I am oblivious to whatever is behind my back. I look unreal and almost transparent, in contrast to the building which seems tortured and alive, its mismatched bricks and glaring windowpanes bursting with secrets still trapped inside. Even the shadow of the tree on the cobblestones seems to be pointing a scissor hand at the entrance to this house of horrors. Though much of the reality of this medical torture chamber was unknown to me at the time, I felt the need to stand there marking the spot. Looking at the photo, I am reminded of all that happened later.

The last detail I hoped to verify was the gas chamber. At the climax of my hypnotic regression, I had found myself lying on a bare cement floor. The room surrounding me was small, no bigger than a one-car garage, and the walls were shiny and wet from recent whitewashing. I also noticed a small round object just overhead, which fascinated me, until the gas began to pour in and I began choking. As the air became deadly and un-breathable, I abandoned my body on the floor and went hurtling into space. (And strangely, once again, as I type this description I find my lungs becoming congested and I am sneezing – not the first time this has happened!) I t turned out these details, too, were correct, down to flakes of old whitewash that still clung to the walls. I touched them, but took no photos.
The Crematorium was right next door. I had no memory of that room – after all, I would have been already dead when I entered it. Like countless others who ended there, had I gone up the chimney as smoke?

In the regression, I experienced what people often report in near-death experiences: hurtling down a long tunnel at high speed, I couldn’t stop laughing at how simple and funny it is to leave one’s body. At the end of that long corridor, as if from the wrong end of a telescope, I saw a round image of my future parents. My father wore wire-rimmed glasses; my mother’s hair was long, dyed black and parted in the middle. They seemed taken aback, as if they had just received notice of a pregnancy. For them, it was 1950 and they were not expecting twins. We arrived a few months later.

Had my trip into my present lifetime with these parents begun in this crematorium? Were death and life so intimately connected that we can step out of one body and into a new one, almost as easily as shedding our clothes? As I stood looking at the ovens, other tourists were coming and going, taking photographs of the room where so many lives had been reduced to ashes before their time.

Anna was waiting for me outside when I emerged. We had lunch in the car: sandwiches and juice.

Then we drove the short distance to Birkenau, a huge, desolate expanse which swallows up visitors as it swallowed inmates in the past. The sister camp to Auschwitz, with its wide gate perpendicular to the train tracks, is familiar from photographs. I walked back and forth for a while on the siding where Dr. Mengele used to stand in his uniform to meet the trains, calling out “Zwillinger, Zwillinger” as he scoured the crowds for twins and other victims for his experiments. While Anna waited in the car, I ran inside, following the signs directing visitors to barracks and gas chambers. A few minutes were enough.

I joined Anna for the long drive home to Wroclaw that would take us north through the coal mining region of Silesia.

In the bookstore, I had bought two books. One was I WAS DR. MENGELE’S ASSISTANT. I carried it with me back to Canada and read it in one sitting the following week. I had the whole summer to read and go for walks and bike rides – and look for another teaching job. It turned out no job materialized. The following autumn, my belongings would go into storage as I began a process of investigating themes that had surfaced for me at Auschwitz. I had left Auschwitz behind, but a ghost had followed me home.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Latter Day Zombies

I rarely go to church but last Sunday in Vancouver I attended the occupation of Saint Andrew's Wesley United Church by survivors of Canada's residential school genocide.

About twenty aboriginal men and women entered the church just as I was sitting down, and lined up in front of the altar holding a banner calling for the return of the 50,000 missing children's remains, and a proper burial.

The church, which had been humming with pre-service chatter, suddenly became silent. After conferring quickly, the minister and one or two other robed officers approached the group and talked with them. For a few moments, the atmosphere was tense and uncomfortable.

Then the minister addressed the congregation and welcomed "our friends" who had a message to deliver. He did this in a superficially friendly and grandstanding way that showed he was on top of the situation and knew exactly how to deal with it.

The native men and women stood holding their banner. In contrast to the minister, none of them were smiling. They looked as if they had just absorbed another insult. No one in the congregation moved or responded. All eyes were focused on the visitors and the minister who stood awkwardly rubbing his hands together in one of those ritualized gestures expressing benevolence and Christian tolerance.

The church seemed suddenly filled with the disappointment and anger of the native people. I felt tears welling up, inside and around me.

When they all slowly turned and began silently filing down the aisle towards the front door, it was as if they had had enough of this place. I felt like running after them, but a family had just sat down next to me, blocking my exit.

Once the natives had disappeared, the minister was all smiles again, calling on the congregation to "wave your hands wildly" and shout requests for favourite hymns. The heavy mood had lifted, and now we were going to be entertained by the Holy spirit. For the next hour, I squirmed in my seat as he nimbly ran through his scripted Sunday routine. First came a children's pantomime about Christ healing a paralyzed man, performed with stuffed bears and children led by the pastor. Next, a sermon about his weekly struggle to make his sermons relevant to parishioners.

At times he raised his arms and threw back his head as if receiving inspiration from heaven. He digressed briefly into a commentary on the "guests" who had interrupted the service, and from there he talked about "illness" and the case of the paralyzed man who was saved by the holy spirit descending through a hole in the roof. He talked about "sin" as the root cause of sickness -- an ancient belief that still has meaning today. Never once did he address the theme of guilt, or atonement for crimes against humanity. The United Church has nothing, apparently, to say about that.

When we were asked to turn to the people around us and shake hands and greet one another in the "spirit of the Lord," I was forced to look into one smiling face after another. As mouths repeated the ritual line, eyes told another story. They were eyes I would instinctively have avoided, filled with coldness, fear, secrecy.

I started to think there was something strange about this church and its congregation. I turned my head once or twice to look at them, standing in their rows, astonishingly alike in Sunday clothes, as if they knew what was expected of church goers. In his struggle to be relevant, the minister seemed almost like a marionnette, calling on us to stand up again and make a "joyful noise to the Lord." It was, he said, our time to "rock." The guitars came out and the middle-aged choir put on a pathetic show of belting out a few "contemporary expressions of faith." The minister joined in the rapture, shaking to the Muzak, letting it all hang out for Jesus.

How people manage to go through these motions week after week without choking, is beyond me. It takes a stronger person than I to take part in an orgy of phoniness, and walk out feeling at one with God's love and light.

By the time it was over, I understood my place in the universe: out on the street with the native people who must know by now to expect nothing from a church that has been taken over by latter-day zombies.