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The Welcome Committee

by Ellen (Korman) Mains

      In June 2006, I traveled to Poland for the first time, alone. My plan, if you could call it one, was not to have an exact itinerary for my four-week stay, but instead to trust that the dralas would watch over me and hopefully participate in my journey. I’d had a mentor for traveling this way in Bill Scheffel, and I knew Trungpa Rinpoche had said, “If there’s any sense of trust, then the dralas come along with you.” You could also say I was willing to tolerate uncertainty, and be slightly terrified.

      After surviving my first few days in Poland, including a visit to Auschwitz, I felt ready to take a further step into the unknown, or a different kind of unknown. Gathering my courage, I took a train from the tourist and student-flooded mecca of Krakow to the industrial city of Lodz where I had no contacts, not even a hotel reservation. Before the war, Jews comprised a third of its population. Its ghetto was the second largest in Europe and the longest-lasting. My mother had been born and raised in Lodz and was imprisoned there, along with her family, until August 1944, when the ghetto’s 70,000 remaining Jews were shipped to Auschwitz.

      I remember the train’s worn purple velvet seats, and how soft and welcoming they looked and felt to me. Happy to have a window seat, I gazed to my right at hazy fields and farmhouses in the late afternoon sun. After an hour, I pulled a yellow folder out of my backpack. In it was my practice text. I read a few sections, intermittently looking up and out at the fields. In one of these random moments, gazing over a golden field beside a small wooden farm house, a welcoming female presence seemed to pass over me for a brief instant − a flood of warmth − like an enormous primordial grandmother embracing a long lost grandchild.

      It was so quick and instantaneous that my mind had no time to second guess. In the next instant, a rash of questions erupted. What or who was that? Where did it come from, and why? But the experience was already long gone. Had I only imagined it?

     The train arrived in Lodz soon after. Wheeling my suitcase behind me, I approached one of five taxis and repeated the Polish words I’d carefully rehearsed. “Please, to a good hotel, but not too expensive.” The driver nodded and without a word deposited me at the Ibis, a tall modern chain hotel on a six-lane thoroughfare. It was virtual culture shock for me after the old city of Krakow, but since it was already evening, I was in no position to argue.

     From inside the taxi, Lodz seemed huge. But in the morning I realized that the Ibis was just a block from the city’s famous central artery, Piotrkowska, touted as the longest street in Europe. As my eyes gazed north over its flamboyant display of nineteenth century facades, I felt strangely reassured, grounded in time and place. The endless avenue awakened something akin to memory, like a phantom limb inaccessible until now − as if my cells remembered this place and felt at home − as if some part of me had always existed here, and could finally breathe again.

     Further up that grand street, I found a vegetarian restaurant with Wi-Fi and sent an email to my brother, then studied a pocket tourist guide, looking for an affordable hotel that would be less sterile than the Ibis. There was one just off Piotrkowska that seemed promising, but how to find it? I looked around the restaurant, chirping with people, wondering whom I should ask for help. A young man, with strawberry blonde hair shaved close, was looking down at his plate as he ate alone. I went over and asked in Polish if he spoke English. “A little,” he said, brightening up as if I’d freed him from jail.

      I only needed to figure out my current location so that I could find the Hotel Savoy. He casually pointed to where we were, then introduced himself and asked if he could show me around the city and practice his English. The young man seemed harmless and sincere, so I agreed to meet him in thirty minutes. Meanwhile I walked to the Savoy, only two blocks away.

     As I approached the curved reception desk in the lobby, a tall, hefty woman in her forties stood up on the other side, her blonde hair brushing her broad shoulders.

     “Dzien dobry,” I said and asked about the availability of a single room.

     “Let me look. For how many nights do you stay with us?”

     “I’m not sure, two or three perhaps?”

     In the restaurant, I’d emailed my brother in Florida asking if he knew the name of the street where our mother and her family had lived. Oddly, I’d received an immediate reply. Showing her my map, I asked if she happened to know where the street Stary Rynek was located.

     “Of course, eet is here,” she pointed and circled it with her pen. “Not very far, only just few blocks.”  Her voice was kind and melancholy, as if full of tears never cried.

     “Really?” I was breathless. “That’s where my mother lived. Thank you!”

     “You are very welcome. If you need help, I am tour guide,” she said, offering me her hand.

      Later I realized Stary Rynek (the Old Market Square) was a well-known landmark. But at the time, I couldn’t believe my luck. I had found an escort and a tour guide, both kind and offering me help. Perhaps talking to an American provided a small thrill or relief from boredom, but I couldn’t help noticing that helping me had cheered each of them up.

      Trungpa Rinpoche had taught that the dralas ride on situations of coincidence. Whether it was luck or magic, everything had fallen into place incredibly quickly and easily.

     The next morning, I left the Ibis in search of coffee before moving to the Hotel Savoy. One street over from Piotrkowska, I found a bakery shop with a large glass display of cakes and tortes. The shop was deserted, but someone appeared and served me a cup of instant coffee.

     Sitting at a lace-covered table by the window, I imagined my mother as a teenager in the mid 1930’s, seventy-five years earlier. Idly I wondered . . . had she ever come inside this building? Could she have sat at this window? The coffee’s bitter vapors tickled my nostrils as I lifted the teacup and gazed through the glass. Surely she had walked down this street. The thought took hold of me as my eyes met the sidewalk.  

      As I imagined her walking on the street in front of me, a sense of her presence came into my heart. I’d had some similar sensations since her death, but this time, the feeling grew stronger and more palpable. From my heart area, I felt a thrust of energy, like a corridor moving out from the center of my chest. It was dense and full with the feeling of warmth and love . . . even bliss. Salty tears rolled down my face and chin. I expected the experience to dissipate quickly, just as it had on the train, but instead it kept increasing, like a flower whose thousand petals were swelling open in accelerated time.

      The tears wouldn’t stop and I decided to leave before anyone saw my face. Next to the bakery was a blonde colored brick church, and just beyond it a park. I stepped through its tall metal gate, like the gate to a palace garden. Inside were cherub-like statues, fountains and many benches. Warm air mixed with the smell of earth and trees, and I breathed them in. The rain of energy continued, loving yet celebratory at the same time, as if a joyous reunion was taking place. It seemed as if I was being welcomed by a crowd of beings who knew me and loved me unconditionally. As if they’d been waiting for me. But why?

      In a corner of my mind, doubt busily performed her due diligence. Who exactly were these beings, and what did this mean? What were the practical implications? The sense of invitation was so strong that I wondered if I should immediately move to Poland. But somehow even these very discursive thoughts didn’t stop the flow of energy. I sensed Trungpa Rinpoche there as well, beaming happily and whispering encouragingly in my ear, as if to say “Yes, that’s right, keep going!”

      In a way it was everything I had ever wanted or could ever want. They were there – someone was really there. I’d expected to find traces of Holocaust spirits suffering in a bardo of agony or despair, but this was something else entirely. If a heaven existed, I couldn’t imagine it being more blissful than this. I just didn’t know who . . . or why I was receiving so much love and support . . . and what to do with it all. I certainly hadn’t done anything to deserve this.

     As I headed back to the Ibis to pack, the experience finally subsided. Perhaps I could stand to take in such intoxicating feelings for only so long. After all, how many moments of pure love does one person get to receive in a lifetime? How many times in one’s life does one get to know, beyond a doubt, that spirits no longer walking the earth are there, connected to us and wanting to help us on our journey? For now it was enough, more than enough.

“The Welcome Committee” is an excerpt from the memoir Ellen plans to publish, tentatively titled “Buried Rivers: A Survivor's Daughter's Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust.” To find out more or receive updates, visit www.EllenKormanMains.com