As a Jew and a Briton, Henry Shukman had avoided all things German. As a Buddhist, he knew he had to say yes when his teacher asked him to teach at a zendo in the Black Forest. This is his journey.
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 German. 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?
Don’t Go There was written by Henry Shukman and originally published in Shambhala Sun, November 2012.