PARIS (RNS) — There are few places on earth more haunted by evil than the memorial sites at former Nazi concentration camps. Visitors who tour their headquarters, barracks and ovens are constantly confronted with the memorials’ main lesson — “Never Again!”
A new Hindu movement based in Germany has come up with a different approach to dealing with the camps’ sinister legacy.
The group, called Bhakti Marga, organizes sessions of followers calmly chanting “om,” the sacred mantra of Hinduism, to “purify” the sites by turning their negativity into positive energy.
Whenever it applies for permission to chant at a memorial, the same questions arise.
Is this simply a religious ceremony like the prayers that Christian and Jewish groups regularly hold at these sites? Or does the ritual somehow aim to whitewash history, an agenda the memorials are all too familiar with from neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers?
Officials at the memorials, German Jewish groups, historians and other intellectuals have debated the issue, with responses ranging from an enthusiastic embrace of perceived allies against racism to outrage over efforts seen as a whitewashing and denial of history.
Bhakti Marga, whose name means “path of devotion” after an ancient Hindu devotional rite it practices, held a chanting session this month in the memorial at Buchenwald, with support from the administration of the camp memorial and the local Jewish community.
Last year, it held similar om chantings at the memorial in Mauthausen, the largest concentration camp in Austria, and Terezin (Theresienstadt) in the Czech Republic, which Nazi propaganda used to portray as a model wartime internment camp.
“What happened in these places is still happening in the etheric and astral realms. Only om has the power to heal these places,” said the group’s 39-year-old swami from Mauritius, Paramahamsa Vishwananda, referring to states of consciousness in Hindu philosophy.
Bhakti Marga, which has its main ashram in the countryside near the western German city of Wiesbaden, says its followers held chantings at negatively energized sites in Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Japan, Belgium and the United States on Feb. 24. Its main ashram could not give details.
Founded in 2005, the group says it has followers in 52 countries and 30 temples in 19 of them and argues that its chantings are purely religious.
“Om Chanting is a free group practice that uses the transformational power of Om to activate the self-healing potential of participants,” it explains on its website.
The chanting, which can be heard on SoundCloud, “generates a vibrational frequency that releases negativity, transforms it and showers participants with positive energy. The vibrational waves created by the circle spread out in a 2-kilometre radius, creating a harmonious, peaceful environment and a unity between humans and nature.”
The negative vibrations at these Nazi sites are palpable, the group claims.
When about three dozen followers recently went to chant in Hadamar, the site of a Nazi euthanasia center not far from the ashram, they reported that two of them vomited along the way because the negative energy was too strong.
When another group of about three dozen chanted in Mauthausen last December, its newsletter said several participants were so moved they broke into tears.
“Many of us could hear beautiful voices like angels singing; one devotee could hear an old airplane with falling bombs,” it said.
“Some of us saw energy which was released and beings saying thank you to the group and flying away through the chimney. This place is famous for the fact that no birds sing there. After the Om Chanting, we could see many birds flying around and singing.”
Administrators at concentration camp memorials routinely grant requests from Christian and Jewish groups to pray on their premises, but Bhakti Marga has confronted them with a very different religious tradition.
“We’re used to Protestant, Catholic and Jewish groups. We’re not used to Hindu groups but we see no reason to ban the Hindus from doing this,” Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau, spokesman for the Buchenwald memorial, told the local television station MDR during the rite there on March 17.
“We have investigated to see if the history of the place is being negated. That is not the case. We’ve looked to see if they take this place seriously. That is the case,” he said.
“They take a tour, they watch a film, there is a conversation with the local Jewish community. So we approved it as a normal event, like those from groups of other faiths.”
Reinhard Schramm, head of the Jewish community in Thuringia state, had no problem meeting the Hindus.
“If people knowingly want to visit a memorial site where 56,000 people were murdered, and want to help prevent that from ever happening again, then that’s reason enough for me to speak with them,” he told DLF radio.
“These are people fighting against racism and xenophobia — they’re my partners!”
In Austria, the interior ministry responsible for memorial sites says they are open to anyone who respects “the dignity of the place.”
Willi Mernyi, chairman of the Mauthausen Committee that oversees the memorial there, said he saw the om chanting session as one of many ways to pay respect and he did not want to judge the chanters.
But asked whether chanting could purify the site, he said: “If it were that simple, I’d join them.”
The memorial at Flossenbürg in northern Bavaria — the camp where the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Adm. Wilhelm Canaris were executed in April 1945 for plotting to kill Hitler — turned down a Bhakti Marga request to chant there last month.
Its director, Jörg Skriebeleit, said the group’s request led to a long discussion with administrators of other memorials in Bavaria and the final decision to deny permission.
“The goal of ‘purifying the site’ and ‘healing the past’ is in our view an inappropriate manipulation of the site and an inappropriate exploitation of the fate of every single victim,” he wrote in his reply.
The chanters replied by saying he would have decided differently if he had “opened his heart,” a comment Skriebeleit said he found “esoteric.”
At Buchenwald, four members of the local Socialist youth group protested outside the chanting session, holding a banner saying “Education and anti-fascism instead of OMinous historical healing.”
“This is an ineffective method that replaces education and enlightenment, which is what the memorials are actually for and what they do every day,” said Jan Schneider, one of four young people braving a snowstorm to hold their protest.
The Antisemitism Research and Information Center in Berlin also had its reservations about the rite.
“The chantings do not deal with the specific history of these places,” its spokesman Alexander Rasumny told the daily Die Welt, noting the list of places the group wants to “purify” ranges from concentration camp memorials to sites where American Indians were massacred.
“This is a mixture of different events that aims to relativize the Holocaust.”
Heike Beck, a minister for interfaith relations in the Protestant church district where the Bhakti Marga ashram is located, said the fact the group always used the same ritual at sites marked by different kinds of tragedies did not seem right to her.
“History is denied and plays no role anymore,” she told DLF radio. “There has to be a confrontation with history so one can see the structures that made these things possible.”