Meryl Ain on “Shadows We Carry”

The twins Bronka and JoJo Lubinski are at the center of Shadows We Carry (Spark Press, $17.95), a post-Holocaust novel set in the 1960’s that grapples with the insidious power of long-held family secrets, and the confusion of religious identities and bloodlines.

Author Meryl Ain talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how the scars of World War II played out in the revolutionary societal changes of the time.

YZM: You’ve said this is a sequel to your first novel, The Takeaway Men; what about those characters made you want to return to them? 

MA: First and foremost, many readers asked me to write a sequel. The Takeaway Men ends in 1962 when the twins are fifteen years old. Born in a DP Camp, my first novel covers their journey to NY as toddlers and follows them into high school. During the pandemic, I met virtually with about 80 book clubs and other groups, and many readers asked me to continue the story. Shadows We Carry follows the twins through college and young adulthood with the inherent coming of age challenges they face as Second Generation of Holocaust Survivors in a time of political and cultural turmoil in the United States. As young women, both sisters confront different obstacles as they attempt to follow their dreams in changing times.  Although the Women’s Liberation Movement actively sought equal rights, greater personal freedom, and opportunities for women in this era, both young women experienced the constraints of a patriarchal culture.

YZM: The story begins in the post-Holocaust period—why did you choose that to focus on? 

MA: Rather than retell another Holocaust story, I wanted to focus on what happened to the survivors and their children after the Holocaust. I wanted to write about the little told story of what the survivors and their children experienced after the war was over. Unable or unwilling to return to their homes in Europe, they left and had to start new lives in countries where they did not speak the language nor understand the culture, and often experienced prejudice and discrimination. In addition, they had just been subject to the most horrific cruelty and trauma in human history. At the time, there was no term, PTSD, nor support services to deal with emotional and psychological issues. By the way, the term “Holocaust,” as well as the word, “survivor,” had not yet come into use. What we now call survivors were referred to as refugees or “greeners.” The term, Holocaust, only became widely used after the NBC mini-series of the same name aired in 1978.

YZM: What is your own family’s connection to the Holocaust and how did that inform your writing? 

MA: Surprisingly, I have no known familial connection to the Holocaust. Both of my parents were born here, graduated from college, and served in the US Army during World War II. My interest in the Holocaust began in the sixth grade when I read The Diary of Anne Frank and it has continued to this day. As a young history teacher, I researched and taught about the Holocaust, although it was not in the curriculum. As a young parent, I first became friends with survivors and their children. I was drawn to them and their stories. I also interviewed survivors and attended events when I was working as a journalist. I have been greatly inspired by dear friends, who were and are survivors, spouses of survivors and children and grandchildren of survivors. I have always felt a visceral connection to the Holocaust. Because I have no known family link, I feel a great responsibility to be accurate and to do ongoing meticulous research about every aspect of this topic.

YZM: You’ve created twin sisters who are very different…what was your intention when you conceived of them? 

MA: A device I chose to get the story right was to craft my two main characters, JoJo and Bronka Lubinski, as fraternal twins. I wanted to explore the range of reactions and behaviors of children of survivors. Incidentally, I’m married to an identical twin and I see that although the brothers look alike and have the same mannerisms and health issues, their values and character are very different. Although they were in the womb together and had the same environment growing up, they have different souls. I thought using twins would show that while all children of survivors carry the family legacy, their reactions run the gamut. As I learned from my friends, neither survivors nor their children can be painted with one brush stroke. I wanted to focus on the complexity of the experience.

YZM: Let’s talk about Judy; if she follows Jewish practice and raises her kids as Jews, shouldn’t that be enough?  Do you think excluding her from the faith is the right thing to do? 

MA: This is a difficult question. In some ways Judy is a metaphor for the divisions in the organized Jewish community today. In the Reform Movement, her children would be accepted fully as Jews, and she would be a participating member of the congregation. In more traditional branches, her children would not be considered Jewish, and neither she nor they could receive ritual honors, such as being called to the Torah. They would have to undergo a ritual conversion to be fully accepted as Jews. In Shadows We Carry I wanted to raise the issue of Jewish identity – and the larger issue of bloodlines. Are we defined by our genes or our environment – nature vs. nurture? I raised this concern because more than three-quarters of those Jews who are marrying today are marrying out of the faith. How non-Jews are included and welcomed into the community varies widely. I’m not a rabbinic scholar, but it’s an issue that should be raised and discussed. 

YZM: Anything else that you wish I’d asked? 

YA: Shadows We Carry discusses attempts to track down and deport Nazis who lied their way into the U.S. after WW II. It also discusses neo-Nazis. Unfortunately, neo-Nazis are still on the march in the United States. We saw it in Charlottesville with men carrying tiki torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Antisemitic emails, graffiti, and vandalism are increasing. Antisemitic hatred is now at a record high. Sadly, Jews at synagogues, kosher markets and in the streets are being targeted and shot. It’s hard to believe that 78 years after Hitler was defeated, his hatred of Jews continues to flourish.