Buried Rivers: A Spir­i­tu­al Jour­ney into the Holocaust

January 1, 2013

Like oth­er chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors, author Ellen Kor­man Mains grew up with a bur­den that was nev­er acknowl­edged. When, as a young woman, she turned to med­i­ta­tion to find a way of mak­ing sense of her life, her fam­i­ly felt betrayed and turned against her. Three decades lat­er, on a Ger­man train, she felt the com­pelling call of spir­its who had died in the Holo­caust. Six­ty years after the lib­er­a­tion of Auschwitz, in Jan­u­ary 2005, they demand­ing­ly asked, How can you still believe in basic good­ness?” Appar­ent­ly, Ellen was sup­posed to have an answer for them. In 2006, she trav­eled alone to Poland to con­front her family’s past and to address this ques­tion. As she walked in places where her ances­tors had walked for cen­turies, she was unex­pect­ed­ly met by a pow­er­ful, lov­ing pres­ence. Beyond sim­ply recov­er­ing her family’s lost his­to­ry, Buried Rivers bridges dif­fer­ent realms and inti­mate­ly explores fam­i­ly loy­al­ties and reli­gious bound­aries amid the invis­i­ble bless­ings of ances­tors. Woven into the mem­oir is her uncle’s Auschwitz sur­vivor account dic­tat­ed before his death.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ellen Kor­man Mains

  1. Did you feel drawn into the author’s expe­ri­ences as a child of Holo­caust sur­vivors? Whether or not you share a sim­i­lar back­ground, did her expe­ri­ences bring up for­got­ten expe­ri­ences of your own? If so, what kind?

  2. What did you learn about the Holo­caust and/​or past or present-day Poland that you didn’t already know? What sur­prised you?

  3. In what way did her uncle’s sur­vivor account and the author’s con­flict­ed rela­tion­ship with him con­tribute to the sto­ry? Did he strike you as a nar­cis­sis­tic bul­ly or as a hero?

  4. How did you react to the author’s inter­ac­tions with heal­ers, psy­chics, and with the dead? Did you find these transper­son­al expe­ri­ences believ­able (or did they detract from the story’s cred­i­bil­i­ty)? Have you had sim­i­lar experiences?

  5. What did you feel were the prin­ci­pal themes of the book? Did they weave togeth­er well? How did the writ­ing, nar­ra­tive flow, and tran­si­tions of time and place con­tribute to your read­ing experience?

  6. If this book were a phys­i­cal land­scape, what land­scape would it be? (Or weath­er sys­tem or kind of music?)

  7. Did your ideas about what hap­pens after death under­go a change? Or your ideas about your ances­tors? Did the book stim­u­late thoughts or reflec­tions on the deaths of your fam­i­ly members?

  8. Which part of the book impact­ed you the most? What emo­tions did it evoke? Were any parts espe­cial­ly dis­turb­ing or inspir­ing? Did any bring you clos­er to some part of yourself?

  9. What do you under­stand or what did the author con­vey about the con­cept of basic good­ness?” In what way do you think basic good­ness can co-exist with human behav­ior or actions such as genocide?

  10. Does the book teach some­thing valu­able about how to hold or move through extreme suf­fer­ing or grief vs. avoid­ing it?

  11. Do you feel the author suc­ceeds in her orig­i­nal moti­va­tion for writ­ing the book (i.e. help­ing the dead)?

  12. Did the title seem appro­pri­ate? What were the Buried Rivers?”

  13. In what way was this a spir­i­tu­al” jour­ney? Did the author’s view of her­self as a Jew, a Bud­dhist, or as larg­er than any of these iden­ti­ties under­go a change? If you could inter­view the author, what would you want to know more about?

  14. Did the book con­tribute to your under­stand­ing of gen­er­a­tional trau­ma and/​or epi­ge­net­ics? If so, in what way?

  15. What does the book teach or sug­gest about tol­er­ance and cross­ing reli­gious bound­aries? Who might ben­e­fit most from read­ing this book?