Book Reviews

How to tell Your Children About the Holocaust

Ruth Mandel. Toronto: McGilligan Books, 2003. 171 pp. ISBN 1-894692-06-3

Reviewed by Gillian McCann, Ph.D.

The work How to Tell Your Children About the Holocaust has been twelve years in the making. Clearly this work was part of a personal journey for Ruth Mandel and her family. The child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Mandelís collection reflects the efforts of the poet both to piece together her familyís past and to interpret it.

The author has utilized poetry as container for the darkness of her own history. And it holds, if only barely. Some of the poems break out like shards of emotion and cut the reader to the bone. Form mirrors content in this case as there is nothing ďtidyĒ about this collection. Mandel is unflinchingly honest in revealing that there is no simple method for dealing with the fallout of the Holocaust, but her personal travails can act as one possible map of recovery. While the title How to Tell To Tell Your Children About the Holocaust is partly tongue in cheek, the telling is a major theme of this work. Although there is no magic panacea for the issues raised here, for Ruth Mandel silence was not an option.

Reading through the collection, the story of Mandelís family slowly emerges; her father, uncle, grandfather and grandmother were hidden by Polish Gentiles during World War Two. While her father and grandfather survived her grandmother and uncle did not. Her grandmother likely died in childbirth due to complications caused by her situation in hiding, and her uncle, as a young boy, was betrayed by the people who were supposed to be sheltering him. In his effort to cope with this tortured past Mandelís father refused to discuss the matter leaving Ruth from a young age to attempt to piece to together what had happened to him. Like a detective the author talked to other members of her family, sifted through photographs, and tried to make sense of clues. Mandel was faced by the gaps and mixed messages of her relatives who simultaneously sought rebirth through the next generation and yet do not want them forget the Shoah. As rendered in the poem Round One Goes to the Parents in 1990 Mandel reached a point where she was ďdetermined to fight my dad for his life, our pastĒ. Ignoring spoken and unspoken injunctions within her family she confronted her father with the question ďwhat happened to you in the Holocaust?Ē In directly asking this taboo question Mandel threw into disarray the carefully kept silences within her family and started both she and her relatives on a journey at least partly documented in this collection.

The first section of the book, entitled Divining is a series of poems addressed to the authorís lost family members and offering portraits of her life lived in the shadow of those who didnít survive. These poems, interspersed with family photographs, evoke the intertwining of past and present and how the dead remain present among the living. Obviously very sensitive to atmosphere from childhood Mandel noted how her step-grandmother cried at every Passover seder, that much was made of her resemblance to dead relatives, and in her poem Postcard to the Holocaust which is addressed to her dead grandmother she writes :

Sometimes, when we sat around the dinner table,
I would notice zaidi mechliís eyes locked on me.

Clearly reminding him of his dead wife, Ruth is a perpetual reminder of her grandmother. While this is true of all families, for the family of survivors the issue of resemblances is more charged. As Ruth writes in her poem addressed to her father noting that she was named for both her great-grandmother and grandmother, ďwhat did you want from me? what was it you needed?Ē

The sense of being a replacement for the dead seems to haunt the author.

The emotional effects of the Holocaust on the entire family are also evoked in these poems. A sense of constant fear and dread, seems to have been absorbed by osmosis. Although nothing is ever said directly the poet absorbs a sense of catastrophe just around the corner and she writes in ďThe Museum of UsĒ

the Shoah
is the bottle in which
we are held.

Mandel skillfully creates a feeling of claustrophobia in this section echoing the situation of her father during the war when he was hidden inside a tiny cupboard. Haunted by this legacy Ruth Mandel was driven to address the issues hanging in the air. The poem Daybreak renders the authorís first visit to a counsellor, herself a child of survivors, and the beginning of open discussion of the subject of the Holocaust.

The second section of How to Tell is called Travelling and documents Mandelís journey to Poland with her husband. The poem Travelling in the Dead of Fall depicts the authorís profound ambivalence about returning to the scene of such trauma. The first stanza ends There is no way I will ever go to Poland and the poem concludes with the line We will go in September. The single greatest driving forces appears to be the desire to visit her grandmother Henia and Uncle Hendrykís graves. Poems and photographs document this trip and help to reconstruct her fatherís life. Mandel searched out the apartment in Krakow in which he and his family were hidden and found the daughter of the woman who saved them. One of the most eerie inclusions in this section is of an extortion note sent to her grandmother and grandfather demanding payment on pain of being denounced to the Nazis. In the poem Kracow Now the author writes:

My father
never saw the pattern
on the ten bales of cloth
his parents traded for his life.

Mandelís consciousness that matters could have turned out very differently for her father and grandfather is clear in the poems she writes about her visit to Birkenau Concentration camp. The author also traced the story of her step-grandmother Nikaís family who did not survive in the poem Waltz-like, Stephan danced. As Mandel did not understand Polish her informant acted out the murder of Nikaís entire family, who had been betrayed by Fascist partisans. The photographs of this enactment that are included heighten the power of this poem.

The final section of the book Who Speaks is a meditation on the Holocaust and its aftermath, both for the author and her children. This portion of the work also highlights Mandelís role as a spokeswoman, a role that she clearly does not welcome, but realizes is necessary writing in the poem Incantation:

If I do not interpret this history
then who will

As Mandel presents it, the generation born after the Holocaust has been forced to grapple with an incomprehensible history that was too toxic for their parents to revisit. Mandel also points to the need to have consciousness brought to bear on the fallout from the rupture in the family line noting its effects on her relationship with her daughter.

The poem Tell Your Children expresses the depth of the challenge of describing the Holocaust. Despite the fact that there can never be a resolution or definitive closure on the matter, Mandel argues persuasively against silence. The author concludes that despite the difficulty it must be told ending her poem with the admonition:

Tell  your  children
Whenever. However. For whatever reason.

The final poem in the collection A Family Tree by Numbers seems to be a vow by the author to turn her inheritance into a commitment to political engagement and vigilance. While the authorís process, rendered in this work, was extremely personal, this last poem points from the individual experience into the larger world. The book ends hopefully with a sense of catharsis and photographs of Ruth and her father in a Jewish graveyard in Kracow where, on separate visits, they tended the graves of Ruthís grandmother and uncle.

Mandelís conclusions regarding the legacy of the Holocaust echo those of the contributors to Cynthia Moskowitz Brody Bittersweet Legacy, Creative Responses to the Holocaust a publication that emerged from meetings between Holocaust survivors and children of survivors. Many of the poems in that volume point to the danger of ignoring such a deep trauma and how it is passed on to the next generation. 

Mandelís is a coherent and moving work that is artistically successful, but also offers a study of one womanís attempt to come to terms with her familyís past. Deeply personal, and illustrated throughout with family photographs and pictures of Mandelís travels, How to Tell also gives a potential road map for healing that has larger implications. The book speaks clearly in favour of full engagement with the world and oneís place in it. This message is perhaps particularly pointed for children of survivors, but surely is relevant to us all.