Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.
Meryl Ain’s debut novel, “The Takeaway Men,” which follows a Polish Jewish family newly arrived in America in 1951, raises more questions than it delivers answers. And that’s just what the author intended.
An educator and the mother of Bay Area Rabbi Dan Ain, she has been interested in the Holocaust “since I first heard the term ‘concentration camp’ as a child,” said Ain, now in her early 70s and a resident of Commack, New York. Reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the sixth grade spurred that interest and instigated a lifelong pursuit to learn “what about afterward,” she said. “I have been thinking about it and researching it ever since.”
Available at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley, “The Takeaway Men” opens in 1942, when a brave young Polish nurse dares to hide two Jews from the Kielce Ghetto in the attic of the home she shares with her abusive, antisemitic father. The story follows her marriage to one of the people rescued — a doctor’s son whom she’s known since childhood — and their departure from a displaced persons camp through their first decade in America.
Aron and Dyta Lupinski, along with their twin daughters Bronka and Johanna, are taken in by Aron’s much older cousin Izzy and his wife, Faye. That Dyta quickly accepts the name “Judy” and Johanna welcomes the nickname “Jojo” offer a hint of how they will adapt to their new life. Aron, meanwhile, finds comfort in regularly attending shul and wearing his clothes from the Old Country, while the sensitive Bronka questions almost everything.
Life unfolds quickly in the Queens neighborhood of Bellerose.
“With its rows of identical brick bungalows sitting on manicured forty-by-hundred-foot plots that were formerly potato fields, the neighborhood evoked a stability that was comforting in the postwar era,” writes Ain, who grew up in Bellerose. “It was a new neighborhood. It was fresh.”
A retired high school history teacher and school administrator, essayist and co-author of the nonfiction book “The Living Memories Project: Legacies that Last,” Ain spent three years researching and writing “The Takeaway Men,” released Aug. 4.
“In writing about what happened after the Holocaust, I thought I could tell the story better by fictionalizing it,” she said. “Also, I wanted to raise a lot of different questions. I wanted the reader to come away thinking about things: Who is a Jew? What is our responsibility to our fellow human beings when we see evil?”
Ain raises these issues through key characters — the brooding Aron, protective Dyta, caring Bronka and fun-loving Johanna — and a varied cast of friends and neighbors who bring into play adultery, assimilation, mental illness (“it was pretty much swept under the rug at that time,” Ain said) and more, including the presence of a former Nazi in the community.
Ain also weaves the Rosenberg spy case into the mix.
“That was another subject that I have been fascinated with for a very long time,” she said, adding that she was deeply moved by her interview with Robert Meeropol, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for “The Living Memories Project.” Ain co-authored that 2014 book with her brother, Arthur Fischman, and her husband, Stewart, a staff writer for the Jewish Week in New York. The Ains have three sons and six grandchildren. Their son Dan is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.
“The Takeaway Men” may be fiction, but it reflects the reality of the ’50s. “The soldiers were coming back from World War II. There were new businesses … It was a very optimistic time,” Ain said. “But there were these undercurrents. The Red Scare. People were being blacklisted and losing their jobs. I wanted to bring in all that.”
Though her novel focuses on the Holocaust and its aftermath, it also relates to current events, particularly immigration.
“The whole notion of the takeaway men, with children being separated from their parents, persists,” said Ain, whose promotional schedule for the book can be viewed at merylain.com.
And is there a larger takeaway from the book?
“To me, then and now, I think the overarching thing is: What is truth, and what is the impact of secrets and lies,” Ain said. “What is our responsibility to others? How do we live an authentic life? I don’t want to answer the questions. They are timely and they are timeless. I think it’s important, especially in these times, to discuss them.”