Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
by Steve Luxenberg

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  "ANNIE'S GHOSTS: A Journey Into a Family Secret"
by Steve Luxenberg

The text below has been excerpted from Chapter Eight of Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret (Hyperion, May 2009), copyright by Steve Luxenberg. Available at bookstores and online through outlets such as,,, or at the author’s website,


I Am Family

The homework assignment seems clear enough: Do a family tree. I turn the paper sideways, and in no time at all, I’ve filled Dad’s side with brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, first and second cousins, more than two dozen names from Michigan and elsewhere. I’ve met them all at one family gathering or another, so I can jot down their names and draw the lines without asking Dad or Mom for help.

On Mom’s side, though, I’ve reached a dead end after just three names—Mom, Bubbe and Zayde. I’ve heard Mom mention an uncle, but I don’t know his name or where he lives or whether he’s related to Bubbe or Zayde. And did Mom once say something about a cousin, or am I making that up?


I didn’t save that flimsy family tree, and try as I might, I can’t recall what happened when I attempted to fill the gaps in it—no memory of whether I asked Mom for the name of that uncle (I must have) or that cousin (did she dodge my questions?) or whether I was inquisitive enough (I can’t imagine that I was) to delve into my grandparents’ roots in Eastern Europe and the family they had left behind.

How old was I? I’m not sure, but eighth or ninth grade seems about right. Nevertheless, the exercise must have left its impression, because I can remember saying later to my college friends, in one of those where-does-your-family-come-from sessions, that I didn’t have much family on my mother’s side and that we just didn’t know anything about the place where my grandparents’ relatives lived in Eastern Europe.

Now, in a suburban Detroit restaurant, I reach out to hug one of those relatives, this cousin of my mother from the place called Radziwillow. I study Anna Oliwek’s features, searching for a resemblance, and I’m not sure I see one. Anna is 82 years old, and has lived in the United States since 1949, but she has that Eastern European look that never seems to fade completely from the faces of some older immigrants, no matter how long they live in their adopted homeland or what fashions they embrace. Her broad forehead, her roundish cheeks, the continuous curve of her jaw line, all combine to suggest that she hails from that vast expanse between the Rhine and the Volga, the only geography I can summon to mind as I kiss her remarkably unlined face. Her accented English only serves to confirm my first impression.

“I’ve had my hair done for you,” she says. I think: That’s what Mom would have done, too. I tell her I’m flattered, and slide into the chair next to her. She and David, her 55-year-old son, are midway through dinner. On this cool April evening, I’ve come for coffee, maybe some dessert, and to hear, at last, Anna’s story of her falling out with my mother over mom’s secret.

Sometime in her 20s, Mom decided to hide the existence of a physically and mentally disabled sister named Annie, telling anyone new in her life “I’m an only child.” She kept up that pretense until the day she died, a pretense that Anna couldn’t stomach.

“I saw you at my mother’s funeral,” I say, apologetically, “but I didn’t know who you were, otherwise I would have said something. How did you hear about Mom’s death? You weren’t in touch with my mother in the years before she died, were you?”

“No,” she says. “I guess I saw the notice in the paper, or somebody did.”

I look at David. He shrugs. No help there.

“David told me that you came to America after the war,” I say.

She nods. “Me and my husband and Bella, who was just a few years old then. Uncle brought us over. We lived in Chicago first.”

“Uncle? You mean Nathan Shlien?” I’m eager to know more about this man who was living with my grandparents in 1930.

“Yes, Nathan,” she says. “And that’s how I met Tante Tillie and Chaim”—using the Yiddish word for aunt and my grandfather’s original Yiddish name.

 “Tante Tillie? I thought you were cousins.”

“Oh, we were,” Anna says, pronouncing the w with that slight v sound of Eastern Europe, so it comes out closer to “vere.” “But that’s what I always called her, Tante Tillie, because she was so much older.”

Anna sighs. “And that child, that poor child. It wasn’t her fault.”

No going back now.

Anna pauses, and I switch on the digital voice recorder that I bought just for the interview; I’m still learning how to use it and I’m worried about the restaurant’s ambient noise level, which is so loud that my own ears are having trouble hearing her. Great, I think—I’m about to interview someone who has actually talked with Mom about the secret, and I’m fussing with a machine. But the recorder’s noise cancellation feature seems to be working well enough to pick out our voices amid the din, so I place it upright and give my full attention to Anna. More than two hours later, she still has it. By then, the restaurant’s noise level is no longer an issue.

We’re the only table left.


Stories rarely begin at the beginning, but every storyteller has to begin somewhere, and Anna chooses to start this story with shame. When I prompt her to tell me about “that poor child,” as she had just called Annie, she replies: “Your mother, she was ashamed of her sister. But it wasn’t the sister’s fault. She was born that way.”

“What was she ashamed of?” I ask.

“She was ashamed that people will find out that she had the sister.”

I pursue. “How do you know that? Did my mom tell you that?”

“Her mother told me.”

“You mean Tillie?”

She nods. “Tillie.”

I want more than that, more than hearsay. This is the first time that I have talked with a witness to Mom’s preservation and nurturing of the secret, someone who has first-hand knowledge that Mom actively took steps to keep Annie hidden, someone who can go beyond Medji’s babysitting experience of overheard conversations and unasked questions. I want to know what Mom said, not Tillie.

I don’t have to wait long.

“When I met your mother, she was very friendly to me, invited me to dinner and everything else,” Anna says. “I come to your house.” That’s the house of my first 11 years, the small two-story brick bungalow on Houghton Street in Northwest Detroit that my parents bought in 1950. Sash had the upstairs, and Mike and I shared a first-floor room until Jeff came along, and Mike vacated his spot for a corner of our wood-paneled basement. Our neighborhood was one of Catholics and cops, and it remained that way long after Detroit’s white flight began, largely due to the city’s residency requirement for municipal employees.

“When was this dinner?” I ask.

Anna can’t remember the year, but she thinks it was before I was born. That would make it no later than 1952. At some point, Anna recalls, Mom took her aside for a private talk. Anna had an idea what was coming, because Tillie had already told her that Mom was keeping Annie a secret. Still, it came as a shock to hear it directly—except that in Anna’s re-telling, indirect might be a better description. “She said to me, ‘Anna, I would appreciate it, this subject in my house, my home, I don’t want to hear it.’ ”

I want to shout “Subject? What subject?” but just then, the waitress interrupts to offer more coffee, and when Anna picks up her narrative again, she returns to the same sentence and removes all ambiguity. “Your mother says, ‘You’re welcome in my house only if you do not speak about my sister.’ ”

This is a case history of the difficulty with reconstructing long ago events, of the intricate patterns of trouble caused by time and memory. Here I am, reinterpreting my mother’s life, trying to replace the distorted picture that I grew up believing with the part that had been airbrushed out, and now I have two versions of this key moment when Mom is declaring to Anna her desire for secrecy. While I have no doubts about the crux of Anna’s story—I know, after all, that Mom did keep the secret—which version comes closest to how Mom actually expressed that desire? Was she elliptical and polite, “I would appreciate it…”, as Anna’s first version suggests? Or did she issue the equivalent of an ultimatum, “Anna, you are welcome in my house only if. . .” as her second version implies? And even if Mom’s exact words had been imprinted somehow in Anna’s memory, what about Mom’s inflection, her demeanor, her body language? Was she stern, or sad, or nervous, or demanding—none of the above? all of the above?—when she branded Annie as a taboo subject in her house?

Those nuances lie beyond my reach. I cannot wrest them, undistilled or unvarnished, from Anna’s memory. Fifty years later, this is the best my cousin can do.


Whichever it was, request or ultimatum, Anna says she went along with Mom’s wishes. That didn’t stop her from wondering how far the secrecy extended: Mom’s children and friends for sure, but what about Mom’s husband? Was it possible my father was in the dark, too? That didn’t seem possible to Anna, but then, none of it made sense to her, not even the shame. She couldn’t comprehend it. “It hurt me,” she tells me. “The sister was still her sister. I know she’s sick, but she couldn’t help it.” But there was nothing Anna could do, and she had no outlet for her simmering anger—until one day, months later, when Tillie came to her with a special request.

For years, Tillie had been riding the bus by herself to visit Annie (“Chaim wouldn’t go, he couldn’t take it,” Anna says) and she was finding the hour-long trip harder and harder to make. Tillie couldn’t get Mom to take her—not only did Mom have two small children and no car of her own, but she couldn’t just disappear for most of the day without telling someone where she was going and why, which was as good as shouting her secret from the rooftop.

After Anna learned to drive in 1953, an almost mandatory act in the Motor City, Tillie asked: Would you take me to Eloise? Anna says she was happy to do it. “Your mother didn’t want any part of it, so I take Tillie there at least once a month.”

“Tell me,” I say, “about the very first visit.”

Tell me what Annie was like. Tell me about my aunt.




She was short, like my grandmother, not quite 5 feet. She had curly hair and that wooden leg, and she often was wearing a drab housecoat when Anna saw her. She lived on an open ward with five or six other women, and when she saw Anna that first time, she shrank back, afraid, unsure what to do or say. She clung to Tillie, to her mother, and told Anna to go away.

“I was a stranger. She was frightened,” Anna remembers. “She was frightened about everything, but not for her mother. She hugged her. She kissed her. She wrapped her arms around her mother’s legs, and wouldn’t let go.” Another image pops into my head: Mom in the hospital, hugging me and pleading with me, Steven, please, I can’t stay here, you don’t understand, I can’t stay here. Family history, repeating itself.

photo: Beth Luxenberg, mother of the author on Traverse City, Michigan beach. 1946. Courtesy of Steve Luxenberg.

Tillie had hoped that Annie would take to her cousin, that kinship would overcome Annie’s suspicion and distrust, but Annie wanted nothing to do with this newcomer, this interloper. “She wouldn’t look at me,” Anna says, sadness evident in her voice. “Tillie would tell her, ‘This is Anna, she’s your cousin,’ but it didn’t matter. Nothing helped.”


"How did she act? Did she talk?” I ask. The Annie described by Mona Evans and by the court-appointed doctors appeared to have no trouble holding a conversation. Had 13 years in confinement changed that?

“Oh, she talked freely, but only to her mother,” Anna says. “She wouldn’t talk to me. I’m a stranger.”

“It must have gotten better as you visited more,” I venture, more out of sympathy than conviction.

“No,” Anna says, emphatically. “It never did. Tante Tillie, she would always cook something special and bring it to her. Annie would sit right down on the floor and eat there. She wouldn’t sit in a chair. And she would look at me, no matter how many times she saw me, and say, ‘Who are you? I don’t know you.’ ”

                                                   photo: Tillie, circa 1930s. Courtesy of Steve Luxenberg


“She sat on the floor? Why?”

“I think because if we went to the table, she was afraid that I would come, too. And she didn’t want me there. She didn’t want to share her mother. One time, she even attacked me, tried to choke me. After that, Tillie told me to stay outside, that it was too upsetting for Annie.”

So their routine changed: Anna would walk Tillie up the steps of the building, and then find a place to wait so that Annie could have Tillie to herself. But then one day, Annie was watching from a second-floor window when they arrived, and she saw Anna escorting Tillie up the stairs, holding her by the arm. When Tillie returned from the visit, she gave Anna new marching orders—no more escorts. “She was jealous,” Anna says, with a look of amazement, almost bewilderment. “She was jealous that I’m so good with her mother. So I had to stay in my car.”

If I had to guess, I tell Anna, I’d add one more reason for Annie’s jealousy: If Annie could not bear to watch Anna escorting her mother up the stairs, she must have been in agony watching Anna take Tillie away again. No matter how often Tillie came to visit, no matter what kind of food Tillie cooked for her, no matter how much love and affection Tillie showered on her, Annie must have known that at the end of the visit, Tillie would go home with Anna, while Annie had to stay behind, patient and prisoner in the place where her mother had put her.


These Sunday trips were no secret within the family, Anna says, so it didn’t take long for Mom to learn of them. Tillie would have told her. “One day Beth says she wants to talk to me. She asks me about it, and I said, yes, I’m taking her, I’m not working on Sundays, and I have the time. She was mad. She went on and on. She told me, ‘You have no right. You have no right to mix in the family.’

“I said, ‘I am family.’ ”

As Anna tells it, Mom wanted the trips to end. Anna refused. As she narrates her memory of the exchange, I can hear the edge in her voice, I can see the anger right at the surface. We might as well be back at the house on Houghton, only instead of Anna telling Mom how she feels about being told to stop the trips to Eloise, Anna is telling me, and her voice is rising. “Don’t forbid me. I’m too strong. I’m too strong. When I want to do something, I do it.” She kept driving Tillie, she says, “but I don’t tell Beth nothing. She’s not stupid, though. She knows. But she doesn’t say nothing, she doesn’t call me, nothing. I know why. Because she don’t want to know what’s going on.”

Their relationship, awkward from the start, never recovered. The dinners stopped, the two families saw less of each other and, eventually, Anna’s phone calls went unreturned. “Your older brother would answer. He would say, ‘She’s out,’ or ‘She’s playing cards.’ I’m not stupid. I realize, she don’t want me. Nothing I can do.”

“Did she call you?”

“No, because I was against her, I was against her will, what she wanted,” Anna says, in a tone mixed with equal amounts of pride and defiance.        

But if Anna could withstand Mom, she couldn’t hold back time. In the early 1960s, as Tillie’s health deteriorated, the Eloise visits grew less frequent and then stopped. Anna doesn’t remember exactly when—she guesses that if they hadn’t stopped before Hyman’s death in December 1964, then they certainly ceased after that.

“Did Tillie ever say she wanted to bring Annie home?” I ask.

Anna shakes her head vigorously. “She couldn’t. She couldn’t take care of her. She was a wonderful mother, but she couldn’t bring her home. She’s a sick woman herself. She started shrinking, she shrinks real badly. She had the bone sickness.”

“Scoliosis?” I say. That was what we always thought of Tillie’s rounded shoulders, so pronounced in her later years that she almost looked like a hunchback. Either that, or advanced osteoporosis.

“Something with the bones,” Anna says. “Anyway, she couldn’t take care of her. Then her husband dies. . .”

I decide to ask a different question, even though I’m pretty sure I know what Anna will say, and by now, how she will say it.

 “Did my mother ever say she wanted to take her mother to Eloise?” I ask.

“No,” Anna says with some vehemence. “Never. She never went there. She never wants to take her mother. She never wanted anything to do with it.”


Anna's words reverberate, like a lingering drumbeat: Don’t forbid me. I’m too strong. I’m too strong. When I want to do something, I do it.

There’s something formidable about my cousin, a steely resolve and strength of will that probably goes a long way toward explaining how she managed, before her 19th birthday, to survive the extermination of Jews in western Ukraine. I can only imagine the combination of skill and luck it must have required to stay alive, first by fleeing Radziwillow amid rumors of an impending massacre and then by deceiving a Nazi major into believing—or at least not questioning—her bogus account of how she happened to end up in a city far from her own, without her family, without anyone.

She’s eager to tell me her story of survival, and I’m eager to hear it, but I’m wary of throwing open that door right now. It’s late, and I’m tired, and I know from my earlier conversations with David that her narrative is too complex, too dramatic and much too personal to appreciate amid the clinking and clattering of a suburban restaurant near closing time. I propose that I come to Chicago for a separate interview, after I’ve had a chance to do some research on the Radziwillow massacres, which I think will help me understand her story better. She’s pleased, I can tell, and so I don’t feel quite so selfish for concentrating on Mom and Annie during this first meeting.

“As long as we’re talking about Radziwillow, though, I’d like to figure out exactly how your parents are related to my grandparents,” I say. “Can we do that?”

We try, but we can’t. The three of us spend about 15 minutes trying to construct a family tree; just like I did for school, I write down a lot of names and draw a lot of lines. Anna can go back several generations on her Schlein side, but we’re missing some of the crucial connections that we need to leap from her branch to my branch. I do learn that Anna is related to both my grandparents—her father was a Schlein, like Tillie, and her maternal grandmother was a Korn, like Chaim. But beyond her own family, Anna’s knowledge is shaky.

I try another route. The Routine History of Annie’s admission to Eloise, I tell her, says that Hyman had two brothers in New York City and that Tillie was one of 10 children. “Is that right?” I ask. “Do you know any of them?” I explain that if I find some of them—or, more realistically, their offspring—it might open an entirely new avenue. It seems logical that they would know about Annie; as I had already learned from my first conversation with David, Annie was my mother’s secret, not my grandmother’s, and for 20 years before her hospitalization, Annie wasn’t a secret at all. Tillie must have shared the news of Annie’s birth with some of her many brothers and sisters.

David chimes in. “Wow, one of 10? I never heard that.”

Neither had Anna. She thought maybe Tillie had a sister in Israel, but she doesn’t know her name.

Anna senses my disappointment, and begins an apology. “You know, I lost all my family,” she says, blinking back tears. “I was so young. . .” She doesn’t finish, but she doesn’t need to. I can imagine what she means. She was 18 years old when she fled Radziwillow, too young to have learned all the family names and relationships, too young to know about those cousins in America who left Radziwillow before she was born, too young to envision a day when she would meet relatives who would call her homeland the old country rather than their country. In that way, we’re alike. When I was 18, I didn’t know a thing about my overseas family, either.

In fact, I hardly knew anything about my grandparents.


“She was a wonderful woman, a wonderful wonderful woman.” Anna is singing my grandmother’s praises again, telling me how Tillie maintained her dignity in the face of all the adversity that the world threw in her direction. “She was a good soul. There wasn’t a thing she wouldn’t do. As poor as she was, she would do anything for you.” She also has admiring words for my grandfather. “Chaim, he would split the wood for us and bring it over so my kids wouldn’t freeze. He was a good man, a kind man.”

This isn’t the grandfather I remember. The grandfather I knew was lost, sad, withdrawn. Anna is talking about a time that’s 10 years earlier, so maybe the wood chopper had changed. But no, I think, this isn’t the man described in Mona Evans’s Routine History, either, and that was written a decade before Anna met him. In her 1940 report, Evans portrays him as sickly, discouraged and “willing to leave all decisions to his wife.” The report says he “peddled spasmodically” for a living until 1933, when an injury in an automobile accident caused two years of frequent fainting spells and he landed on the city’s relief rolls in 1934. A doctor at the city’s welfare office concluded that he was suffering from “poly-arthritis and old healed varicose ulcers.” He was just 47 years old, eight years younger than I am now.

“Let me ask you something else about Hyman,” I say.

Anna waits.

“I’m wondering what brought him to Detroit, and how Tillie ended up here, too.” I mention the census record, which shows that Hyman emigrated to the United States in 1907 and that Tillie followed him in 1914. They married a year later, in Detroit. “Do you have any idea? Do you think Hyman was in touch with people in Radziwillow?”

Her reply is so startling that I ask her to repeat it: “Well, Tillie was his cousin, so that’s probably why.”

His cousin? My grandparents were cousins?

And if that weren’t startling enough, she adds: “First cousins, I think.”


First cousins? All sort of thoughts flood into my head, but here’s the one that pushes its way to the front: Was this one of the “sins” that Tillie was talking about when she told the hospital staff that “the sins of the parents are paid for through their children?” I had been puzzled about that sentence ever since I first read it, but I had never thought about this particular possibility. Was Tillie saying that she committed a sin by having children, because the children of first cousins run a greater risk of birth defects? Or was she saying it was a sin to have married Hyman in the first place? Was it a sin under Jewish law for first cousins to marry? I wasn’t sure. And whether it was a “sin” or not, was it legal as far as the state of Michigan was concerned?

None of us knew the law, but David reminds me that it was more common in those days for cousins to marry. Whatever sins Tillie had in mind, he says, he’s sure that this wasn’t one of them. Anna agrees. “They were poor. That was the sin,” she says.

I ask Anna whether Tillie had ever said anything to her about sins. Anna shakes her head. “She did say she feels guilty about putting Annie in Eloise,” she says. “But I told her, ‘Tante Tillie, you can’t blame yourself. The girl was sick.’ ”

Sin or not, was it even true? I rummage through my mind, trying to remember whether I had ever heard that Tillie and Hyman were related, and suddenly I’m aware that I honestly don’t know what I remember, that now that this powerful possibility—first cousins—has entered my consciousness, I cannot say with any degree of certainty what I knew before Anna’s revelation and what I knew after. Like a computer’s hard drive, my memory has been overwritten with the new information. I was confident that I had never heard anyone say my grandparents were first cousins. But what about distant cousins? Had I heard that, and just forgotten it?

There’s only one certain way to know whether it’s true, and that would be to examine the Radziwillow birth registry. But David has already done some genealogical sleuthing, and he’s had no luck in finding Radziwillow records from that era. For the moment, and maybe forever, I’m left to wonder as we say good night: Is this just another family secret?


(To learn more about Annie’s Ghosts, you can visit the author’s website at, where there is a wealth of information, including photographs and documents not included in the book).




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