Talking “A Castle in Brooklyn” with Shirley Wachtel

1944, Poland. Jacob Stein and Zalman Mendelson meet as boys under terrifying circumstances. They survive by miraculously escaping, and are sure they will remain friends for life. Years later, Zalman plows a future on a Minnesota farm while Jacob marries Esther, an intelligent and capable young woman who seems cut out for more than marriage and children. When Zalman arrives in New York City, it seems Jacob’s hopes for the future are becoming a reality. With Zalman’s help, they build a house for Jacob’s family and for Zalman, who decides to stay. The story of these three characters—and the tragedy that affects them all—unfolds in A Castle in Brooklyn (Little A, $24.95) and novelist Shirley Russak Wachtel talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how grief and betrayal threaten to destroy what were once unbreakable bonds. 

Yona Zeldis Mcdonough: How much of the novel was based on your family’s actual history?

Shirley Russak Wachtel: Quite a bit, I believe. Like Jacob and Zalman, my parents were Holocaust survivors. However, my parents did not go into hiding; but spent the end of the war in concentration camps. Initially, my mother was captured in front of her home and taken to a work camp where she sewed buttons and collars onto the Nazi soldiers’ uniforms. There, just like Jacob and Zalman, she is helped by a righteous person, a female guard, who would sneak bread to her each day. At war’s end, she and two brothers survived out of eight children. My father’s story was even more harrowing, as his family of five were gassed, and he remained the lone survivor. When the Lodz ghetto was dispersed, he made a courageous escape, running from the line designated for the gas chambers to the line for workers, before entering Auschwitz. Jacob and Zalman’s escape takes a different form, but is just as traumatic. In my novel, the United States represents freedom and a new beginning for Jacob, whose dream is to build a home of his own. My parents felt the same way, and at war’s end, spent the rest of their lives living in Brooklyn. While my father never did build a home, his dream was to have his own store, which he ultimately did, owning and working in a variety of stores, a laundromat, candy store, etc., alongside my mother. After coming to America, my uncle owned a chicken farm, not in Minnesota, like where Zalman worked, but in Lakewood, New Jersey. I have memories of visiting the farm and being quite frightened of all those pecking chickens! After my birth, my father went to school, just as Jacob does, to learn English. He would write compositions about his new little daughter. Although the stories of my personal history and the one I present in the book, go in different directions, the desire for freedom and family while being haunted by memories of the past, is the same. 

YZM: Why was now the right time to tell this story?

SRW: Now is the perfect time for this story. Sadly, levels of antisemitism are at an all-time high in our nation. It is my profound belief that ignorance sets the stage for not only antisemitism, but prejudice in all its forms. From there, prejudice metastasizes to acts of blatant racism, discrimination, and yes, even genocide. Growing up in Brooklyn, I never imagined that what my parents endured could take place in my own world, but now that survivors are dying and memories of that time are receding, I find this to be a real possibility. The way to combat racism is through education. A Castle in Brooklyn examines the lives of those who have suffered one of the worst traumas in recent history. Seeing ourselves, our tragedies, our ambitions, our dreams, in these characters is one step in the right direction. 

YZM: Esther feels some conflict between her roles and wife/mother and businesswoman; can you elaborate?

SRW: Esther steps up when neither of her brothers takes an interest in their father’s realty business. She proves herself to be an adroit businesswoman and finds fulfillment in helping Boris and making the business a success. However, once she marries Jacob, at the urging of her mother, she opts to take a backseat to her husband, who goes on to become a successful entrepreneur. After reluctantly succumbing to society’s norms, Esther is determined to find happiness in her role as a wife and mother. Later, when that option is tragically torn from her life, she begins to rebuild herself, ultimately, finding satisfaction as a student and a teacher. I view Esther as a feminist who overcomes life’s circumstances and creates a new, independent role for herself.

YZM: The idea of generational trauma is very much present in this novel; can you talk about how the scars of the past shape the characters’ present and future?

SRW: Jacob is haunted by a past, a past he is reluctant to speak of, even when Zalman prods him to do so during the war. This mysterious trauma is responsible for Jacob’s reticence, but also what inspires him to relinquish the past and set his sights on building a home in America. His jealousy can also be traced back to a feeling of abandonment which he experienced in his home in Europe. However, we later learn that self-introspection results in his rethinking of his hasty actions as he resolves to make amends with his friend. To a lesser degree, Zalman is also haunted by his past, where he was a voyeur in the pirates’ room back home, and later, a witness in Jacob’s home as his friend marries, builds a home, and has a child. Realizing that standing on the sidelines can only lead to heartache, Zalman decides to finally embrace a life of his own, with a wife and a family. 

YZM: Each of the three main characters responds to tragedy in a different way; what do each of them see as the best way of going forward after their crushing loss?

SRW: The unforeseen tragedy changes everything for these characters. Understandably devastated, Jacob retreats inside himself, unable and unwilling to express his sorrow. He needs to blame someone for what happened, and his anger ultimately lands on Zalman. It is not until years later that he understands the consequences of losing his best friend. While Esther too is inconsolable, she proves to be the stronger character, providing a sympathetic ear to her husband as she tries to find a way into the future. She ultimately takes pleasure in her music and reinvents herself as a compassionate teacher. Although not as happy as her former life, her future holds promise. Zalman makes the decision to create a life of his own, with a wife and child. While he is still tormented by feelings for someone, he comes to the realization that he has finally found the contentment he has longed for.