Not a big reader of poetry, mostly because I’m too literal to understand most of it, I picked up Beneath White Stars: Holocaust Profiles in Poetry with trepidation. Lucky for me, this book of poetry is unlike any I’ve ever read, in the best of ways.
While the poems (as you can surmise from the book’s title) are harrowing and tragic, within them are tales of kindness, survival and redemption. Grouped together in sections somewhat like chapters, after each section, Mandelkern provides a historical back story for each poem. In her prologue, she encourages readers to read each poem, turn to the back story, and then perhaps contemplate the poem again. I did this and found the poems much more meaningful the second time around, especially for a left brained person such as I am.
Mandelkern’s poems touch on every part of the Holocaust, from the savagery of the atrocities committed by the Nazis to specifically named heroes who risked their own lives to save those of persecuted Jews. She writes of the exquisite care and lengths Jews took to document what was happening to them and to find ways to preserve those histories. She pens of the Kindertransport, rescue efforts made to get Jewish children to England out of harm’s way. And while she writes of the importance of theses escapes for the lives of the children, she captures the children’s fear and the utter heartbreak and selflessness of the parents who put their children on trains with mainly the clothes on their backs heading into the arms of strangers. She writes of a marriage consecrated out of necessity and performed in a wedding dress made out of parachutes which ultimately resulted in a seventy-year union full of love and gratitude.
Despite all of these events happening decades ago, every time I flipped from a poem to the history portion and discovered that one of the subjects of the poem lived beyond the war, I silently cheered.
Mandelkern is Jewish and clearly has personal reasons for wanting to share her poetry, but her efforts go well beyond the personal. She is a prolific scholar of history and has traveled to many of the places and met many of the people of which she writes. She is a skilled poetess who turns page long stories into four and five stanza poems. She is judicious and economical in word choice but still brings forth all the emotion.
Just like the documentarians during the Holocaust, she, too, is a carrier of the torch for this history so devastatingly brutal but also such proof of the human instinct for survival. As we lose the last living souls that actually experienced this tortured time in our history, poets and historians like Mandelkern will carry the stories forward ensuring that, indeed, we never forget.
Publisher: Almondseed Press
Elizabeth’s rating: 4.5 stars