I haven't checked the weather, but I know it is a perfect day to chat about adult Jewish literature. I'm Sheryl Stahl. Thanks for joining me here at Nice Jewish books. Today I am delighted to welcome author and fellow podcaster, Meryl Ain, to talk about her new novel The shadows we carry. Welcome Meryl.
Thank you so much, Sheryl. I'm x. I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
My pleasure. So tell me about your latest book.
Hey, my latest book is called Shadows We Carry. And it's the story of twin sisters Branca and JoJo Lubinski. It begins in the late 60s. And it during a time that is just filled with political and cultural turmoil. And the the twins are coming of age at that time they're students at at Queens College JoJo wants to be an actress, and a Bronco wants to be a journalist. And they both face the realities of the time there's still discrimination against women, both in getting into professional school, and in pursuing a career in journalism. And Jo Jo has an unplanned pregnancy. In the years before Roe v. Wade. The these twins are very interested in their children of a Holocaust survivor and their mother saved their father during the war. And they there's the shadow, the cloud of the Holocaust over them, and they're very concerned about their, you know, their lineage. And they come into contact with other characters who are as well. There's the son of a former Nazi. And there is a priest who also has a very complicated background.
Wonderful.!. So along with all those social and political changes, they have to figure out how to incorporate their Orthodox Jewish upbringing into this world. How close to their fathers form, which was very strict, ultra orthodox, do they want to live? Or, you know how much more liberal and open to they want to be? Can you talk about that?
Yeah, well, it's, it's, as I said, it's a very complicated family background. Their father was orthodox he and this is all dealt with in the prequel that Take-away Men. My first book, which you do not have to read to enjoy shadows we carry but if you want to read that, that would be wonderful. So the mother saved the father's life. After the Holocaust during the Keilse pogrom, which took place a year after the war was over. And he married her. He never bothered to have her converted, because this was right after the war, and they ended up in a DP camp. And when they arrived at the DP camp, he had her pass as Jewish, so she's been passing as Jewish her whole life and she is she is a very good Jew. She does everything but she's not technically a Jew, and the girls find out the secret. And it the girls are very different, even though they're twins. So it impacts Branca, much more than JoJO, JoJo doesn't care. I mean, both girls identify as Jewish. But this this bothers Branca very much. And she really doesn't know where she fits. And she searches for this and and looks for resolution during this book.
Yeah, that was one of my questions, actually, that the twins mother Judy was born Catholic, I think right. And she very enthusiastically embraced Judaism. And it was so important to Aaron to have Jewish children and grandchildren is a major theme here. But why did he never push or at least encourage her to formally convert?
That's a good question. He's very complicated as all human beings are, and I think he cared about appearances. And once she was accepted as Jewish I think he was just too embarrassed to rock the boat. So he just kept this secret which really ate him up. And it weighed very heavily on on Branca as well.
Yeah, one thing that I loved about your book was the sisters relationship. It seems that in many books, twins are either almost exactly alike or one is the good twin while the other is the evil twin. Branca and JoJo are each very much her own person. And they're very close to each other and supportive of each other.
Yes, they are. And I, I had a definite reason for crafting them as twins. I am not the child of Holocaust survivors. But I've done extensive research. I know known Holocaust survivors, personally, they have friends of the family, I've interviewed them, I have many friends, who are 2G and I have been doing meticulous research on this topic for many years. And one thing that I especially learned from my 2g friends was that although the cloud of the Holocaust impacts all of the children of survivors, it can impact them in very different ways. So I, the one thing I did not want to do in this book, because it wouldn't have been doing them justice was paint all children of Holocaust survivors with one brushstroke. So I thought creating twins would be a good vehicle. And I do have some personal acquaintance with twins, my husband is an identical twin. And although he and his brother both had for many years, exactly similar containers, as I said, you couldn't tell them apart. People didn't know who the groom was at the wedding, they gave an envelope. You know, now they don't look completely the same. They had the same health issues. They have the same taste, but they're very, very different human beings with different values and a different character. So that gave me the idea that that telling the story, using twins would be a good idea and that indeed, all human beings are very different. And I made them fraternal twins, so they're even more different, more like siblings.
Absolutely. It sounds like you're you would come down more on the the nature side of nature versus nurture. Because both of them grew up in the exact same household. And yet Branca ...I don't want to say she internalized her father's anxiety and depression. They both did. But she expressed it; she acknowledged the shadow that the family had, while JoJo felt like she always had to show a cheerful face. And didn't really acknowledge I mean, she acknowledged it but didn't emotionally acknowledge the the family trauma until it caught up with her a little bit, right? Yes. Yeah, that definitely got in the way of her having a relationship with, well, her boyfriend and then husband, Bruce, because she just wasn't used to sharing her troubles. She didn't know how to express them.
So I do think that, as I said, I think they experience of a being of a child of a holocaust. From what I've studied and learned from my friends, it does impact people very deeply in in different ways it I would come down, probably on nature with that. However, that was one of the I'm glad you mentioned it because that's one of the overall questions I wanted to raise in the book The whole question of nature versus nurture, because we had the Catholics priest who was given away as an infant by his Jewish parents during the Holocaust. And and then we have the son of the former Nazi who's grappling with the question am I responsible for for my father's misdeeds? And I left that open ended? I mean, that's totally for the reader to decide. And I think that's such an important question and an interesting question, and I don't really know whether we're ever going to come up with a satisfactory answer to it, but it's it's nice to talk about
Yeah, and Maybe there's an ironic but Brian's father had had been a good father to him. He had done horrific things during the Holocaust, and then seemed to settle into, you know, a happy family situation.
You know that? That's a question that that's the eternal question, you know, with people who, if these same people who were really monsters, you know, when they became Nazis, how would they have been if there had never been a war? If there had never been a Hitler? Would they have just, you know, lived a normal life and been shopkeepers and gone home to their family, but they had they had this in them, or, you know, the more disturbing question is, you know, do we all have this in him? And then the bigger question I wanted to raise is, you know, who, who's responsible? I mean, who is responsible for this? You know, the fact that, you know, although Judy was a righteous Gentile, and she did save him, and there were many righteous Gentiles by by comparison to the number of Jews who were murdered. It's just, it's just a tiny sliver. So I think this is an eternal question that we face.
Yeah. And just, you know, back to Brian, can you continue to love and respect someone when you find out this new knowledge about them? And, you know, it totally shatters him? To find out, you know, his father has passed and one thing that brought it up was that as a photographer, reporter, he saw him in a neo Nazi activity. So,
what's the Nazi activity? Yes, that's now they were they were changing. It was as Bronka was going to cover it was a street.
It was a name changing for a street. Because I mean, I based this on an actual community out on Long Island I called it Fatherland, gardens, the real name of it, and it still exists is German Gardens, although they've gotten rid of all the Nazi names, the main street was Adolf Hitler's Street. And they had all these these names of Nazis as as street names, and they also has a Nazi youth camp, prior to World War Two, which indoctrinated young people into Nazi values. So to me, also, the question is, well, what if he had just sort of grown up and knowing Yeah, my father was German, he was in the war. I don't know if he had been desensitized to it in some way. But it just came as such a shock, because he just knew his father, as a good father, which he was. And that raises the question of, you know, we all do we all have a good side and an evil side. And what brings it up? It's very frightening.
You know, and it seems obvious to us now that people who had been active Nazis in World War Two should be prosecuted. But that wasn't the case in the years after the war. So why was that? And when did tracking down and prosecuting Nazis become a thing?
Yeah, I deal with I deal with that in the book. So the truth is that after World War Two, everybody just wanted to celebrate. The country was tired of war. And, and the GI guys wanted to go home, get married, have a family, pursue a career, buy a house, and just resume normal life. The government was not interested ... and this is a dirty little secret. That's not really a secret. They the minute the war was over, the US government changed its focus to hunting down communists, instead of Nazis and the whole weight of the government was focused on that, you know, we all know about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy trial where they were the Rosenbergs were executed in the early 50s. So there was a communist witch hunt and everybody just forgot about Nazis and it's even worse than that because the United States invited former Nazis seems everybody knows Verner von Braun who came to work in this space program. They had many former Nazis work in the space program and work at Los Alamos, you know, developing the atomic energy. So they, the US government just look the other way. So then we go through, we had the Eichmann trial in 61. And that raised awareness, somewhat, but I would say, and this is in the book that the watershed moment was when NBC did a mini series called The Holocaust or the Holocaust in the late 70s. And I think it was on four nights, and the country was riveted to this. And after this, the word Holocaust and the word survivor became part of our lexicon before that. People didn't talk about survivors, and they didn't, there wasn't they didn't talk about the Holocaust, either. And, you know, and then Steven Spielberg got involved with Schindler's List that was later that was in the early 90s. But the Shoah Foundation, there was there was much more interested in and survivors started coming out of the shadows, because originally, some of them were embarrassed and American said, like, why didn't you fight back? Why did you, you know, they were they, they lived with a lot of shame. They started coming out, um, you had Holocaust centers created, and they started speaking to schools. And then Elizabeth Holtzman, really spearheaded this in the United States Congress in the in the late 70s. And the Office of Special Investigations under the Department of Justice was established, I believe, in 1979. And then that office, went gung ho in rooting out former Nazis and holding them accountable and in in many cases, deporting them.
Let me change the topic slightly, you had mentioned that the Keilse pogrom, which I don't think I had heard of, and this occurred after the war ended.
It did. And it's interesting because I hadn't heard of it either. So when I was writing the Takeaway Men I had a big decision to make with all authors to where are your characters coming from? And where are they going to so the going to was easy I just made them come to my own community because they think you should wait what you know. But where were they going to come from? So I thought about it, you know, Germany's been over done and France and Holland is Anne Frank. And I was trying to I kind of settled on Poland, but I didn't know where in Poland because I needed there to be a ghetto there. I needed there to be a forest there. And one summer, my husband Stuart, and I went to the Berkshires, and they have a Jewish film festival there. And we saw a film called Bogdan journey, which was about the Keilse pogrom and this young man who currently lives in Keilse went back to Keilse and interviewed people there about what they knew about it. And and you know, what their feelings were about it and I said, okay, it has to be Keilse then I started researching it and I, I actually found a treasure trove of material. So I had them come to Keilse. but from Keilse, but it it happened. It happened after the war on July 4 1946. And there was a Jewish Community Center there that was housing, refugees from the Holocaust before they were going to be sent to other places. They were housed there. And a young boy made up a story. He wanted to go back to his old neighborhood because the neighbor had cherry trees. He wanted to pick the cherries, his parents discovered he was missing. They were upset. They look for him, he came home. And when they asked him what happened, he just made up a total lie that a Jewish man had kidnapped him and the community civilians police officers and soldiers stormed the place they they dragged Jews added there and they they shot some of them they beat them to death and there were you know several, I don't remember the exact figure but I want to say had babies over 100 probably killed in an injured, which to me was raise all sorts of other question, How could this have happened a year after the war in Europe was over. So I found that very, very scary.
And I think, in general, what a lot of people don't realize is that the war wasn't over when the war ended, you know, that the soldiers went home, but for the Jews, there was no home to go home to, for the most part. And, you know, they were stuck in these displaced persons camps, and, you know, really had a tough time starting their lives again,
the I'm in that was one of the main reasons I chose to set the book in the in the post Holocaust era, because what I mean that there are other books set in that era, but there are, you know, the best selling category on Amazon is Holocaust novels. And you know, they end and either the characters, you know, are murdered, or they are they go on to new lives, but I wanted to show the complexities of what happened to these survivors and their families after the war was over, because it was, it was not easy for them. You know, they didn't speak the language, there weren't the support services that there are nowadays, they just and many of them, as I said before, were were shamed. And so they just kind of kept to themselves, and they kept their secrets bottled up at that time, right after the war.
So let's switch back to a happier moment for your characters. When Johanna JoJo gives birth. Her father finally has some happiness in it his life again, this shadow doesn't disappear. But for the moment, it's, it's pushed aside, you know, when he's able to hold his grandson, you know, and feels it as a direct response to Hitler that he has. There's as another Jew, that's living in the world.
Right? He, he does. He overlooks the fact as he did with his own children, that the child is not technically Jewish. I mean, Aaron is, I guess, like many people, he just makes up his own rules. But he, he is thrilled. And even though he was very, very angry with Jojo, when she got pregnant by accident, and, you know, she got Mary right away, which is, you know, the kind of what people, many people did in those days. And he was furious with her, he, he, he said, You brought shame on this family, and you'll be the death of me. He was horrified. And it as soon as the baby was born, he was fine with it. But actually, I think that that's more typical than not because what grandparents hard is not melted by a beautiful baby.
Very true. So both JoJo and Branca have kind of their dreams deferred that JoJo had to give up her pursuit of acting to be to raise her children. And Branca is kind of stuck on the the women's track in journalism doing cooking, a cooking column in which she had no interest to begin with, although she does start to enjoy it. But that's not her goal. She wants to do serious journalism. So they each do persevere though. And so I do like the message that even if you can't reach your goal, right this minute, you know, it could happen a little bit later or a lot later, you know, to keep working towards it.
Yeah, yeah. And I think that that that is the case. It's a case for everyone. I mean, young people today. They say they will not stay in one job forever. They'll have four or five jobs. But it's certainly the case for baby boomers, which they are that the times changed. And there were more opportunities to reinvent yourself in different ways. So you know at that time in which they grew up. You know, I think about I mean, certainly Elizabeth Holtzman was very unusual, a woman in Congress and Barbara Walters, a woman on TV was incredibly different. She was the only one. So there were few. And then of course, you know, Title Nine was passed, there was there was legislation and, and things changed. So things always always changed. So I guess, you know, people should have hope and, and always be receptive to change and realize that they can reinvent themselves many times.
You mentioned your research several times. Was there anything in your research that surprised you?
Well, I think we, we covered we the certainly the Keilse pogram surprised me, and certainly the fact that they didn't do anything about Nazis, and also certainly, that there was his community out on Long Island, I live on Long Island, I did not know about this community German gardens. And in fact, it wasn't until 2017, where they got rid of the requirement that you had to prove German lineage to live there near New York State. But it stopped to it. But there is, you know, and we're talking in a time where there is a rising surge of anti semitism. So it's, it's been there, it never went away. And it's it's rearing its ugly head again.
You said 2017? Just a few years ago. Wow. Yes. Amazing. So do you have any projects in the works that you would like to mention?
Well, it's it's sort of in its embryonic form. My mother was joined the Women's Army Corps the WACS during World War Two, she had seen a film about Hitler and, and she enlisted days after she graduated from college. And when she was at, she wrote a memoir of her life, which was never published. So I'm reading the memoir. Now I like to do something with it. I think I might want to fictionalize it. But I have to tell you, it's it's very emotional. It's very emotional. So I, I've taken it. I've written some chapters I'm going back and looking at and of course, I'm very busy now with this book. But I that that is what I would like to do.
That sounds wonderful. What a beautiful tribute to your mom to be working on that. Thank you. So is there anything that you would like to answer that I haven't thought to ask?
Just that I, I love to speak to groups, organizations, book clubs. If you I'm happy to. If it's a local, I can come in person or I'm happy to to zoom in.
Okay, great. So I like to give all my guests an opportunity for a soapbox moment. So if you would like to use your book or anything at all, as a call to action for Tikkun Olam for repairing the world, what would it be?
Okay, well, I actually have two thoughts on that topic. So the first thought is just, you know, one of the themes from my book, who's responsible, and I think that I certainly have come to the conclusion that that we are all responsible. So we certainly have to speak out when we see evil, and it's certainly part of our Jewish heritage to help those who are less fortunate. My other particular area of interest is obviously Holocaust survivors and their families. I'm on the International Advisory Board for Holocaust survivor day, which is taking place this year on June 4. So I just think that people that you know, the number of Holocaust survivors are, are dwindling. So it's important to remember them and and honor them and a number of them aren't are in need and they can be helped by you know, many organizations, including UJA Federation.
Wonderful, thank you. And if people would like to contact you for a book club or reading or for any reason what would be the best way?
You can contact me through my website, Meryl ain.com. And
so that's m e r YLAIN.
Right? And I'm on Facebook, I started a Facebook group called Jews love to read. And we have almost 4000 members. And it's a very wonderful eclectic group of people from all over the world. So if you'd like to join us there, please do.
Yeah, I'm actually a member of that group. And I've definitely enjoyed it.
I know you are there, and we post your podcasts,
which we, which I very much appreciate. So Meryl, thank you so much for being here speaking with me about the Shadows We Carry.
Thank you so much Sheryl. It's been great.
If you are interested in any of the books we discussed today, you can find them at your favorite or didn't brick or online bookstore, or at your local library. Thanks to de Yon ki for use of his fraleigh which definitely makes me happy. This podcast is a project of the Association of Jewish libraries. And you can find more about it at WWW dot Jewish libraries.org/nice Jewish books. I would like to thank ajl and my podcast mentor Heidi Rabinowitz. Keep listening for the promo for her latest episode.
This is AJ Sass author of Ellen Outside the Lines. I'll be joining you soon on the Book of Life podcast. I'd like to dedicate my episode to advocates against censorship. The folks who push back against book bans and other attempts to silence marginalized voices. Your efforts are needed and so very much appreciated.
The Book of Life is the sister podcast of nice Jewish bucks. I'm your host, Heidi Rabinowitz and I podcast about Jewish kidlet. Join me to hear my June 2023 conversation with Andrew Sasse. About Ellen outside the lines and other books