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Buddhist Jew’s Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust

Blogger and Genealogist Dan Ruby reviews Boulder author Ellen Korman Mains’s new memoir, “Buried Rivers: A Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust

How does Buddhism speak to the Holocaust?

Early on in Ellen Korman Mains’s compelling account of her spiritual journey as the child of survivors to make sense of the Holocaust, she observes 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 is one of many contradictions she resolves during seven years of investigations into Poland’s past and present. In discovering the details of her own genealogy, and of her family members’ experiences in the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz and other locales, she illuminates broader issues of responsibility and reconciliation that will be of interest to any student of the Holocaust.

I’ll admit I approached the book with some trepidation about the Buddhism focus. I was interested in learning a Holocaust family story, but wasn’t sure how I would respond to Mains’s spiritual quest. But my skepticism ebbed away as I began reading, drawn in by the author’s vivid descriptions of inner and outer landscapes and her skillful weaving together of multiple narrative strands.

Ellen Korman Mains

Soon I arrived at a tacit agreement with the narrator to suspend disbelief and experience her visions and insights as written, including claims of spiritual communication with ancestors and spirits (dralas) representing unnamed murdered Jews seeking closure for their interrupted lives. The first such encounter occurs aboard a train in Germany, when she is touched by the presence of dralas that compel her to seek a Buddhist understanding of the Holocaust.

This sets in motion her long quest to not just to understand her family’s Holocaust experience but in some ways to make peace with it. Guided by a few pages of Holocaust testimony left by an uncle, her journeys take her back to Poland for repeated trips, each time unraveling more details of her family’s story and opening new ideas for further inquiry.

She also travels back through the personal history that led her to this quest: her Montreal Jewish childhood, her rebellion as a young woman, her relations with her two parents and uncle, and then the deaths of these three founding influences in her life. We also meet her community of friends and associates in Boulder, Colo., where she lives and teaches, and at international workshops and conferences she attends.

Despite my preconceptions, it is precisely because of Mains’s Buddhist training and outlook that the book is so interesting. She applies skills of intentional observation, awareness, and introspection, honed from a lifetime of meditative practice, both to interrogate the terrible events of the past and to reach an accommodation with them in the present.

Ellen will be speaking at Boulder Book Store, January 10th, 7:30 pm http://www.BuriedRivers.com

About Ellen Korman Mains

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