Being a “word doctor” involves more than just finding and correcting typos, grammatical errors, and structural flaws. For me, and I feel sure most other proofreaders and editors, it carries a privilege—not just of being entrusted with something very precious to the writer that likely involved years of work, research, hope, uncertainty, and even rejection, but of peeking through a window into an author’s life and heart. Some of the books I’ve worked on have surprised me. Others have taught me. A few have rather bored me. (Just keeping it real here. Not every book is for every reader—or editor.)
Proofreading poetry collections is a rarity for me, but since I write poems myself on occasion and have enjoyed the collections of diverse voices, I was flattered to be asked to be “the final eye” on Holly Mandelkern’s Beneath White Stars: Holocaust Profiles in Poetry. I didn’t know Holly well, as we only crossed paths in a monthly poetry workshop administered by a mutual friend, which I didn’t even attend on a regular basis. But that title certainly caught my eye. And piqued my curiosity.
Perhaps rather naively, I expected the usual collection of just poems. I was surprised and pleased to embark on a journey through a part of history I knew relatively little about, meeting new heroes, heroines, and “just plain folks” like you and me of varying religious faiths and nationalities, spanning youth to old age, who were caught in a net of horrific madness. Holly, along with illustrator Byron Marshall, brought them to life again not just through words, but drawings, maps, and some of Holly’s own travel and family memories.
Beneath White Stars is a book that a proofreader doesn’t forget.
To date I’ve served in that capacity for nearly a hundred books. I’d like to do a hundred more. And I’ve intended for a good while to feature in this blog some of those titles and authors that made a particular impression on me. Because sometimes you just want to get to know—and share—something of the heart behind the pen.
So now let’s hear from teacher, lecturer, and poet Holly Mandelkern.
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LW: Was Beneath White Stars your first poetry collection?
HM: Yes, it is my first poetry collection. A sober start! Then again, I recently came across my report card from kindergarten. The teacher stated, “Works quietly, purposefully, and with industry. Sings well with obvious enjoyment. Expresses ideas thoughtfully and soberly.” Insightful, wasn’t she? (I love music but am not a singer.)
LW: What prompted your choice of subject—and in poetic form, for that matter?
HM: I had traveled to Poland and Israel in the 1990s with other teachers to study the Holocaust. After that trip I started teaching at our local Holocaust museum for summer workshops for teachers. There was never enough time to cover topics in the allotted time. So I decided that I would start writing on the subject, not knowing where this would lead. About this time I was returning to poetry, and I found that the distillation required for poetry corresponded to the limitations of what could be conveyed on this topic for various reasons.
LW: You take us on quite the history lesson. What did your research process look like?
HM: The process started with the story of my father, who had been a lead bombardier and American POW at Stalag Luft III deep in the heart of Nazi Germany. Hearing his story made me want to know more about the reason that he had enlisted in the Army Air Corps and if his situation as a POW was especially precarious because he was a Jew. The next step was this teachers’ trip to Poland and Israel, where we visited historic sites in Poland and studied with wonderful historians and survivors in Israel. When I started putting pen to paper, I began with my notes from this trip, conversations with survivors, extensive survivor testimonies, and websites such as that of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad VaShem in Jerusalem, and numerous other extensive sources. But the more I learned, the more I realized what I didn’t and couldn’t know.
LW: Were there any historical figures who particularly stood out or “spoke” to you?
HM: Norbert Wollheim, a young man from Berlin who was noted for his constancy in doing good for the community before, during, and after the war. I met this elegant gentleman on our teachers’ trip.
Vladka Meed served as a courier for the underground in Warsaw, smuggling information, maps, and dynamite to the Jewish resistance. To preserve the story of resisters, she established a program to train hundreds of American teachers to be able to teach this history. She led our teachers’ trip.
Petr Ginz was a child prodigy in many fields. From Prague, he had already written several books and a Czech-Esperanto dictionary by the age of fourteen. When he was taken to Theresienstadt, he recorded his rigorous studies there: his academic and artistic work and his starting and editing a journal of work by his peers. His own reading list is sweeping in scope.
Abraham Sutzkever was a young poet, partisan, preserver of life and culture from Vilna, Lithuania. He survived, moved to Israel, and became one of the most noted Yiddish poets of his time—or any time.
Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum applied his skills as a historian and community organizer to establish a historical archive in the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest source of information on what happened there. It was also a repository of prewar Jewish culture in case all Jews were destroyed.
LW: Tell us about your writing process. Did you have a set schedule, a certain time or number of hours you wrote each day? Any “writing rituals” you observed?
HM: My writing, researching, and thinking overlapped. So I was diligent in doing some of each on most days for about five years, taking breaks to write some lighter poetry to stay balanced.
LW: How did you find an illustrator and editor?
HM: The illustrator attended a talk I gave on Petr Ginz and other resisters. Byron Marshall was captivated by Petr, and we met a month later. Byron had done a sketch of Petr, and I asked him if he would illustrate my book. “I’d be honored,” was his response. A neighbor insisted I meet her granddaughter, “a fabulous copy editor.” She was so right!! I also had a wonderful poetry editor, Al Rocheleau, and a great history editor, Mitchell Bloomer, resource teacher at our local Holocaust museum. Mitchell and I met on the teachers’ trip many years ago. I met you through poetry circles, and I knew I wanted you to proofread as the last very careful reader of my manuscript!
LW: What has been the response to Beneath White Stars? Did it match or exceed your hopes?
HM: The response of readers and educators has been very positive. Church groups and book clubs are fascinated with individuals in the book. I’ve done several presentations for teachers and students, but I’d like to reach more teachers. Just this month, though, Dade County and the University of Miami included my book on a recommended reading list that included big names in the field. I wrote the book because I could and felt I needed to, and I really didn’t have expectations. One of my biggest joys was reconnecting after decades to my twelfth grade English teacher in Jacksonville who has read the book three times. She asked, “How did you ever write this book?” I was able to answer truthfully, “Because I had you for my teacher.”
LW: Do you have any recommendations for authors just starting out, or those looking to publish their first book?
HM: Persistence outranks inspiration. Know that what you are sharing will serve an important purpose.
LW: Do you have any other books currently in the works, or planned for the future?
HM: Right now I’m working with musicians and composers who are setting some of the poems in Beneath White Stars to songs for an album. An Irish folksinger, Brendan Nolan, has done four beautiful songs. The cantor from my synagogue has done another, and I’m starting to work with an organization of women composers, too. Next up may be another historically based collection.
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For more about Holly and Beneath White Stars, visit http://hollymandelkern.com/. In the meantime, here’s a sample from the book.
HEARTBEATS At Amsteltrust Park in Amsterdam Anne Frank (in photograph dated June '38) stands beneath trees with sunshine as spotlight, light summer dress, wide-brimmed hat for shade. Posed for a shutter, the shining eyes smile— birthday or outing her parents had planned? She cradles a dark rabbit close to her body, feeling its heartbeat in her hand. One palm supports the gentle young creature, the other hand ready to touch its small face. Guarded and gauging, the rabbit relaxes its vigilant ears as it rests in its space. Immured, though moving in stillness, Anne with cruel sleight of hand is removed from her ground where she stands—silent, captive in Amsterdam Annex, betrayed to the hunters. I hear her heart pound.