Ellen Korman Mains: On Permeable Mysteries in Memoir and Life


There’s nothing like having an open mind and heart, especially if you have an interesting question to explore. These were the weightless possessions I did my best to carry and protect on my first journey to Poland in 2006. I was in my early 50s, recently recovered from major surgery, and driven by a question about the Holocaust and basic goodness.

Let me start again: There’s nothing like traveling with an open question, a question you may never fully answer but which leads you forward with an irresistible longing. Something inside me recognized I had to keep going, keep abandoning second thoughts—despite a long and tedious history of self-doubt.

The open mind belonged to the Buddhist in me, and made a wonderful companion to the critical and skeptical thinker, also deeply embedded in my being. Early in my spiritual journey as a child of Holocaust survivors who was attempting to reconcile the Holocaust with the notion of basic goodness, I observed the irony that one schooled by Buddhism to live in the present could make it her life’s work to grapple with demons of the past. It was one of many contradictions that surfaced while I explored Poland’s past and present, including my own family’s experiences in the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Ravensbruck.

Perhaps my decades of meditation practice were responsible for a deeper perspective and more potent insights into the nature of forgiveness, family dynamics, and the forces of history. Or perhaps I felt so honored for having been offered such a worthy question that the question and I became co-creators—I was the human being, and the question became the mysterious container and magnetic attractor for the forces of synchronicity and magic—a vortex in which unknown ancestors felt sufficiently invited to collude and conspire. To miraculously show up! I had made provision for bad news; the good news was entirely unexpected.

When this tapestry of outer and inner journeys eventually took the shape of a memoir, a few Jewish readers admitted they had reservations about a second-generation Holocaust memoir by a Jew who practiced Buddhism. But soon they reported their skepticism dissolving, drawn in by descriptions of landscapes and feelings they could not help but respond to, and by the interweaving of narrative strands involving body memory, place, and heart.

Non-Jews, meanwhile, reported the memoir having relevance well beyond the Holocaust. For whatever family story we started with, whatever nurturing we did not receive, or if later in life we experienced great or lasting trauma, we needed templates to help us find the meaning that was lost or never discovered. For them, my story revealed how the body carries those messages from the past, and demonstrates that we may not be as alone as we believe in seeking to transform them or help others.

For all the Holocaust stories that have been told, and all the voices that have already been heard, the truth is that most stories will never be told nor heard. Like the underground canals in the city of Lodz, where my mother was born and lived through most of the Holocaust, the title of my memoir, Buried Rivers, also refers to waters of life that were damaged in that history, including my own as the child of survivors. One of the more compelling mysteries was that as much as the tangled roots of death and despair needed an open sky in which to unravel and let go, the open field of my own awareness also needed to find its roots of belonging.

Ellen Korman Mains is the author of Buried Rivers: A Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust (Oct. 2018). In addition to leading workshops and meditation retreats, she has spent well over two years in Poland since 2006, researching the Holocaust and her roots, exploring ancestral connection, and promoting dialog.


Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQzFo6jSX4A


One comment

  1. What a lovely description of the task that lies before those of us with Holocaust legacies- and more broadly each of us who are inheritors of family pain and trauma. To quote the journalist Alex Koplowitz… “One of the powers of telling your story is you begin to make sense of what for all time made no sense at all — and also makes you feel less alone.” Brava!


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