Dancing to the End of Love … at Auschwitz

Dear friends, together with a University of Toronto (Mississauga) sociology class studying “Genocide and Memory”, I have spent today (Sunday) at the Auschwitz – Birkenau concentration camps in Oświęcim, Poland. There is much to process and even more to grieve. 

I’ve been reading Jeremiah lately as part of our “Hope Before Breakfast” focus at Wine Before Breakfast, and I was struck by  the metaphor of dancing that arose in our passage for this week. Jeremiah 31.1-14 is a bold proclamation of building and planting for a community that had been torn down and uprooted. And I suspect that it would have been as impossible for those ancient exiles to imagine such hope as it would have been for those at Auschwitz. 

And all of that got me thinking about dancing and music at Auschwitz, which, of course, brings to mind the great Leonard Cohen.

Here’s what I came up with.

They had an orchestra at Auschwitz.

As trains unloaded their human cargo,as emaciated prisoners marched to work,
and later returned to their barracks,
exhausted from malnutrition,
carrying their dead,
the orchestra would play.

Leonard Cohen was thinking of that orchestra
when he wrote “Dance me to the end of love.”

    Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
    Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
    Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
    Dance me to the end of love

Somehow beauty,
perhaps a longing,
perhaps a memory,
perhaps a vision that refuses the ugliness of Auschwitz
must have the final word.

But it is a burning violin.

Burning in guilt? Anger?
A burning anticipation of the ovens?
Or might this be a burning of love?

Dance me.

Dancing in Auschwitz.

Dance me through the panic,
through the terror,

through the hunger,
the fear, the despair,
dance me till I’m gathered safely in.

A dance in the face of death,
but a dance that isn’t complete,
hasn’t reached its end,
has not fulfilled its telos,
until we are gathered safely in.

A dance that is homeward bound,
when home has been destroyed.

A dance of the displaced,
a dance of the diaspora,

exiled within exile.

Dancing to the end of love.

Is this dance the end of love?

Is that what Florence and the Machine meant?

      Leave all your love and your longing behind you
     Can’t carry it with you if you want to survive
     (“Dog Days are Over”)

Are love and survival impossible to hold together in Auschwitz?

Or is there a telos to love
beyond the gas chambers,

beyond the crematoria,
beyond the starvation?

Is this what Cohen was getting at?

    Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
    Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
    Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
    Dance me to the end of love

Beyond extermination to the birth of children.
Beyond violent separation to tender kisses.

Beyond homelessness to a tent of shelter,
though every thread is torn.

Jeremiah envisioned such a dance of love.

In the sorrow of Babylon,
the prophet foresees the community
taking up tambourines
and going “forth in the dance of the merrymakers.” (Jer. 31.4)

Against all the evidence,
and subversive to the oppressive regime,
the prophet has an audacious imagination:

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
    and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
    and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the Lord. (Jer. 31.13-14)

From mourning to joy,
from sorrow to gladness,

from despair to hope.

In Babylon?
In Auschwitz?

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

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