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
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.
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
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
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
sighs. “And that child, that poor child. It wasn’t her fault.”
going back now.
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.
was ashamed that people will find out that she had the sister.”
pursue. “How do you know that? Did my mom tell you that?”
mother told me.”
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
“When was this dinner?” I ask.
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.’ ”
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.’ ”
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.
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.
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
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
“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
sat on the floor? Why?”
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.”
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.”
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
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.’
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?”
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
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?”
“No,” Anna says with some vehemence. “Never. She never went there.
She never wants to take her mother. She never wanted anything to do
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
fact, I hardly knew anything about my grandparents.
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
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.
me ask you something else about Hyman,” I say.
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?”
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
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