Meryl Ain brings readers a fresh view of the 1950s, when Holocaust survivors were resettling into America, when the Rosenberg trial captivated everyone, especially Jews, and schoolchildren learned to hide under their desks in atomic bomb drills.
In “The Takeaway Men,” Ain presents a New York tale. Set in the Bellerose neighborhood in northwest Queens, the plot centers on the residents of one block on the site of a former potato field, with rows of identical brick bungalows on manicured plots now dotted with fruit trees and rose-covered trellises. The street is full of stories, secrets, double lives, and complicated identities.
“The thing about secrets,” Ain says in an interview, “is that they usually don’t really remain secrets forever.”
This wise and sensitive work of historical fiction, skillfully weaving fact and fiction, involves a pair of twin sisters, born in a displaced persons camp in the American zone in 1947 Germany, who arrive with their parents in New York Harbor to stay with cousins they don’t know. Their father Aron, who once had hopes of becoming a physician like his own father, is happy to find work in his cousin’s bakery on Union Turnpike. The girls sometimes wake up to their father’s loud nightmares, even as their mother tries to soothe him.
For the family, Bellerose “was as close to paradise as the twins and their parents had ever been — except, of course, when it wasn’t,”
The twins, Johanna and Bronka Lubinski, are closely entangled — they are loving, watch each other’s backs, and depend on the other. But they react to America and to their past very differently. Johanna embraces America, wants to be popular, is embarrassed by her parents’ accents, while Bronka is the quieter sister, who seems to have inherited their parents’ pain — the “tragedy of her father’s unknowable and unspeakable legacy.”
Ain, who grew up in Bellerose, explains that inventing twins helped her to show how people born at the same time, to the same parents, living in the same environment still react very differently to their experiences. She is fascinated with twins, and has a lot of personal experience with them, as her husband, award-winning New York Jewish Week staff writer Stewart Ain, is a twin.
In the novel, Ain ties in many themes: stories of Righteous Gentiles, a suspected Nazi living in the neighborhood under a new identity and working in a kosher deli, the stigma then of mental illness, questions of defining Jewish identity and reacting to evil, and the popular culture of the ’50s, from Ginny dolls to poodle skirts to “Howdy Doody.” And there’s Hebrew School, with few girls in attendance, new immigrants as the earnest teachers, and boys who can’t sit still pelting others with spitballs.
She weaves the title artfully into the text, first in a letter written by a Polish-Jewish woman, recalling her time in the Plaszow forced labor camp in 1942, when her sister’s twin girls saw the Gestapo approaching them, and screamed, “Mama, the takeaway men are coming,” before they were loaded onto a truck with other children, never to be seen again.
A decade later, in 1951, a young girl who lives across the street from the Lubinskis in Bellerose witnesses her mother being taken away by FBI agents and arrested “for conspiracy to obstruct justice” in connection with David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs. She asks, “The takeaway men took Mommy away. When is she coming back?”
Aron Lubinski recalls the SS as the takeaway men, “who forced them from their homes and then starved, tortured and murdered them.”
Ain says that the title reflects what has been going on these days at America’s southern border, with children separated from their parents.
The phrase also goes back to an incident in Ain’s childhood, when she was about 4 years old — a trauma for her at the time, albeit one with a safe ending. She opened the front door of her home to encounter a man she didn’t recognize who looked official, with a black suit and horn-rimmed glasses. Before her parents came to the door, she asked who he was, and he said, “I’m the takeaway man, I’ve come to take you away.” She shrieked and ran into the bathroom. She was too young to recognize that he was a supervisor who had come to pick up their dry cleaning, and was kidding around with her. The moment and the phrase stayed with her.
She worked on “The Takeaway Men” for about three years and says, “Sometimes I felt that the book was writing itself and that the characters were leading me.”
This is a first novel for Ain, who has published nonfiction books, “The Living Memories Project: Legacies That Last” and the companion book, “My Living Memories Project Journal,” works that encourage tangible ways for readers to keep alive the memories of their loved ones. She has also written many articles and essays, and has had an accomplished career as a history teacher and school administrator on Long Island.
The author, who lives in Commack, N.Y., had been a reader of mostly nonfiction, but since retirement joined a local book club and began reading a lot of fiction, and was inspired to try writing a novel. Now, she is interested in meeting with as many book clubs as possible, virtually, to discuss the book.
The Holocaust has been a lifelong “obsession,” she says, beginning in sixth grade when she read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” She has taught about the Holocaust, spoken with many survivors and their children, and has read extensively on the topic. For the novel, she did meticulous research in order to get the history right and to capture the reality for her invented characters. She also includes a glossary of Yiddish, German, Hebrew, and Jewish Americana.
Some scenes are set in the Kielce pogrom on July 4, 1946, a violent massacre of the town’s Jews by soldiers, police, and citizens, in which 42 Jews were killed and many were wounded. Ain’s interest in these events was sparked by the 2016 documentary film, “Bogdan’s Journey,” which she saw when she was thinking about the shape and reach of the novel.
Ain reflects on the thread connecting the novel and her previous books, all of which relate to the urgency of memory.
“I think it’s important to remember the Holocaust and to remember the survivors. In Kielce, they killed Jews in cold blood a year after the war was over, and no one in the town ‘remembered.’ We have to remember.”
Sandee Brawarsky is culture editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.