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Giving Voice to the Holocaust: Publisher displays diversity

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

• Today Magazine received an SPJ award for this story in 2021 — it was first published as a cover story in January 2020 and continues to be timeless and relevant today

By Bruce Deckert

Editor-in-Chief • Today Magazine

Thousands of publishers crowd the American book landscape. Among them, a seemingly minor publishing house in the Farmington Valley is making a major contribution by shining a light on sometimes-neglected societal and historical issues — and whenever a topic like the Holocaust is disregarded, each time the neglect occurs is one too many times.

Mandel Vilar Press, a nonprofit publisher, has been based in Simsbury since its founding in 2014 by Robert Mandel. With four decades of experience in the publishing realm, Mandel has helped publish over 2,000 books, including 200 on the Holocaust and 300 other Jewish fiction and nonfiction books. Mandel Vilar Press (MVP) has published 25 books, including 10 on the Holocaust.

“MVP is well-known nationally and abroad,” Mandel says, “but we aren’t especially well-known in Greater Hartford.”

MVP might be the best-kept secret in the Farmington Valley. The publishing house seeks to foster diversity and conservation by introducing underrepresented and diverse literary voices to English-speaking readers. MVP has garnered multiple awards in its brief five-year existence — including a half-dozen for the novel My Real Name Is Hanna, a powerful work of historical fiction which traces the World War II story of a Ukrainian Jewish family that goes into hiding to escape the Nazis and ultimately lives in underground caves for more than a year until the war is over. January 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest concentration camp.

“I have always believed in the imperative that we must keep the memory and history of the Holocaust alive and real to new generations born after these events,” Mandel says. “I have tried to put my beliefs into practice by teaching about the Holocaust and publishing both historical fiction and nonfiction books about the Holocaust.”

MVP’s other Holocaust-related books include The City of Light, Searching for Wallenberg and Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy.

“In a recent poll, 22% of millennials said they never heard of the Holocaust,” Mandel notes. “In Britain, one in 20 adults does not believe the Holocaust happened. ... Most Americans (58%) believe that something like the Holocaust could happen again.”

Given such alarming statistics, Mandel senses a significant mandate.

“As a concerned citizen, a historian and book publisher, I believe that we must all do our part to fight hatred and bigotry wherever we find it,” Mandel says, “and do our best to educate new generations of readers, especially people born long after these heinous events, to prevent a repeat of history — the possibility of another Shoah — so we can help prevent a return to the darkest period in the history of humanity.”


Before starting MVP, Mandel worked for 35 years at seven university presses, beginning in 1979 as senior editor at SUNY Press in Albany, N.Y., and culminating as director of the Texas Tech University Press. In between, he was hired to launch and direct the University of Alaska Press. In 2014, he ostensibly retired — until he was encouraged later that year by authors he had worked with to start a nonprofit literary trade publishing house.

To some people, retirement means more time for golf and the beach, likely in warmer climes. For Mandel, however, retirement has meant establishing Mandel Vilar Press and carrying on his life calling of producing meaningful books that sustain and educate.

As the publisher and founder of MVP, Mandel is the only full-time employee, and it’s an unsalaried role: “I donate my time and work to MVP’s goals and mission,” he says.

Robert and Dena Mandel make Simsbury-based Mandel Vilar Press a team effort and a labor of love — Photo by Seshu of Connecticut Headshots • 860-593-0850 •

He works closely with his wife, Dena Mandel, a retired university professor who is MVP’s volunteer senior editor. The Simsbury residents had a time-honored grandparent’s motivation for their move to Connecticut: Their only child, Brynn Mandel, and her son Cooper live in Avon.

“When we arrived here Brynn had already been an award-winning features writer for the Waterbury Republican American for more than a decade,” Robert says. “She subsequently transitioned into high school English teaching and has been teaching English and journalism at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington for six years.”

Cooper attends Roaring Brook School, an elementary school in Avon.

Dena says she appreciates the way the towns of Avon, Canton and Simsbury “promote local cultural events and accentuate the area’s inherent natural beauty — from the splendid public libraries with their vibrant array of programs to the endorsement of the arts through the music summer festivals at Simsbury Meadows and Talcott Mountain. ... The region’s striking beauty is on display throughout the many hiking and biking trails that are enhanced by the Drake Flower Bridge over the Farmington River and environmental resources like the Roaring Brook Nature Center.”

Robert, 74, and Dena, 72, share a Jewish heritage, an undergraduate alma mater (University of Wisconsin) and a birthplace (Newark, New Jersey). Each has a doctorate — Robert in modern European history and Dena in English literature. They met in 1967 and married in December ’68.

Asked about the most vital aspect of their work with MVP, the Mandels sound a harmonic chorus. Robert’s reply: “Publishing the best fiction and nonfiction books by the best ethnic and minority writers in the Americas and throughout the world.”


Naturally, Dena gives voice to the senior editor’s role.

“Every new project for publication exposes me to an unexplored universe of diverse ideas expressed by talented writers,” she observes. “My role is to work with our authors to craft their respective manuscripts to showcase their distinctive style, imagination, voice and intellect. ... Because being a developmental editor is a persuasive process, an editor must earn the trust of each writer by demonstrating an understanding of the author’s subject, aesthetics, ideology and intent.”

When Robert was director of the Texas Tech press, Dena was a professor of comparative literature at Texas Tech, specializing in literature of the Holocaust and Jewish American literature. 

Dena notes that an editor can’t single out a specific book “any more than parents can nominate a favorite among their children,” adding that “welcoming challenges has proven to be a source of satisfaction.”

She explains that she was reluctant to edit My Real Name Is Hanna “because I was in the unfamiliar terrain of adolescent readers.”

“However, the captivating true-to-life tale of survival of a young Ukrainian Jewish girl, along with 37 friends and relatives, in a large but unexplored cave was too fascinating to refuse,” Dena says. “Tara Masih’s novel ... turned out to be a rewarding undertaking. It has won multiple literary prizes … and, best of all, Hanna’s story has familiarized a new generation of young adults with the suffering, resistance and resilience of those who were persecuted during the Holocaust.”

My Real Name Is Hanna is the first novel authored by Tara Lynn Masih, an award-winning writer and editor who has enjoyed an eclectic career in book and magazine publishing.

“I feel lucky that this particular novel landed with MVP,” Masih says. “I’m not sure any other press would have done it justice. It needed an edit from someone like Dena Mandel, who taught Holocaust literature for 30 years. It’s so important to get the facts right in a Holocaust book, as we owe the survivors the full truth.”

Hanna is being taught in high schools and middle schools nationwide.


“The MVP team did a great job with the interior and cover,” Masih observes. “As a writer, I am not too proud to say that having an arresting cover and book design helped draw in readers who appreciated the experience of reading a book that was carefully written, edited and produced.”

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering about the middle name in this nonprofit’s nomenclature — Mandel Vilar Press — Irene Vilar is MVP’s associate publisher and co-founder.

She says that MVP helps “open up our cultural borders” and plays “a vital role in maintaining a healthy and vibrant democracy and cultural literacy ... ignorance breeds bigotry and prejudice. It is clear that publishing translations is one urgent mandate for the making of an empathic, global citizen.”

“I have always believed in the imperative that we must keep the memory and history of the Holocaust alive and real to new generations born after these events” — Robert Mandel

Besides the goal of promoting diverse and underrepresented literary voices, Mandel Vilar Press is the publishing arm of the nonprofit Americas for Conservation + the Arts. And in 2019, MVP launched a Jewish trade book imprint, MomentBooks, a joint venture with Moment Magazine.

Simsbury has been in the news nationally for fostering diversity vis-à-vis the iconic history of the civil rights movement. In 2010 a group of Simsbury High students undertook investigative historical work and demonstrated that Martin Luther King Jr. spent two teenage summers in town in the 1940s.

These dedicated students produced a nationally acclaimed documentary about MLK’s visits to Simsbury, and today another student group has taken the baton and paved the way for a dream to be fulfilled: an MLK memorial in town that is slated to be unveiled this year.

Nonetheless, census stats indicate that Simsbury isn’t as ethnically diverse as Connecticut or the United States, so perhaps it’s ironic that a publishing house advancing diversity resides here. Yet it appears that the ethos of Mandel Vilar Press will continue to enhance not only the broader publishing domain but also the town it calls home.

After five years, this powerhouse Lilliputian publisher — a “Little Engine That Could” amidst giants like HarperCollins, Macmillan and Penguin Random House — is apparently still picking up steam. +

• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is an 11-time award-winning journalist

• This story received a third-place SPJ Award in 2021 in Connecticut's In-Depth Reporting magazine category • SPJ = Society of Professional Journalists More — Nine more SPJ awards for Today Magazine

• This article first appeared as the cover story in the January 2020 edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication


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