Monday, December 6, 2010

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg 2009

A Michigan Notable Book, awarded by the Library of Michigan 2009 

Shortly before Steve Luxenberg’s mother died he was shocked to learn that his mother, who had always characterized herself as an only child, had had a sister. Luxenberg, a senior editor for the Washington Post, with the training and instincts of an investigative reporter, was profoundly disturbed by this revelation and was driven to learn as much as he could about his aunt and to see if he could understand why his mother would have kept the secret from her children her whole life.

It didn’t take the author long to learn that his aunt had spent all her years since the age of twenty in mental institutions in the Detroit area where the family had made its home. He was astounded to learn that she had died in 1972 when he was in college. Neither he nor his siblings had had an inkling of her life, her death or burial.

Luxenberg wanted to know what her diagnosis was and spent some time petitioning for her records as next of kin. This led him to do research on the history of mental institutions, and on the specific institution, known as Eloise, where she spent most of her life. To try to understand why his aunt spent most of her life institutionalized, he interviewed many professionals about the evolving ideas of mental illness and the institutions where those who exhibited a certain set of symptoms were placed.

The more he wanted to know about his aunt the less he realized he knew about his mother’s family. He remembered his grandmother as frail, his grandfather as taciturn. He had no idea where in Europe they had emigrated from. So he embarked on a genealogical investigation, searching for them in US census data, on ship’s manifests, in city directories, and in other public documents. He wanted to draw as complete a picture of the family as possible to see what he learned that might help him understand an immigrant Jewish family living in Detroit in the first half of the twentieth century. 

What was particularly helpful is that he found a cousin of his mother who had come to this country after World War II, having lost all of her family in the Holocaust. She had met Annie and was able to help the author better understand the dynamic between Annie, her sister (his mother) and their parents. 

Luxenberg’s background as a journalist adds immensely to the richness of the story. First of all, as his investigation proceeds, he is constantly figuring out the questions he needs answered. He uses his professional credentials to get certain documents not easy to obtain from the bureaucracy and he knows how to interview subjects – both professionals and family members. An interesting aspect is that he is constantly worried about his dueling roles of journalist and son. As a journalist he just wants to get the facts; as a son he wants to find facts that will exculpate his mother’s role in keeping her sister a secret.

To read an excerpt from the book that appeared in the Washington Post magazine in March of 2009 that deals with how his mother's cousin Anna survived the Holocaust, click here.

Author's mother's family
Nochim Korn – great grandfather of author
    Hyman (Chaim) Cohen (Korn) -  his son; married Tillie Schlein;
        Bertha (Beth) Cohen – Hyman and Tillie’s daughter; married Julius (Jack) Luxenberg
            Evie Luxenberg Miller – daughter of Jack Luxenberg and 1st wife Esther Golde; author's half-sister
            Marsha (Sash) Luxenberg Rosenberg - daughter of Jack Luxenberg and 1st wife Esther Golde; author's half-sister
            Michael Luxenberg – son of Beth and Jack; author's brother
                Toni Luxenberg – Michael’s daughter
            Steven Luxenberg – son of Beth and Jack; married to Mary Jo; author
                Josh and Jill Luxenberg – their children
            Jeffery Luxenberg – son of Beth and Jack; author's brother
        Anne Cohen – Hyman and Tillie’s daughter

Nathan Schlein – relative of Tillie
    Anna Schlein Oliwek – Nathan’s niece- her mother is a Korn (Cohen). Related to author’s grandparents on both sides
        Bella – Anna’s daughter
        David Oliwek – Anna’s son
        Dori – Anna’s daughter
    Mendel – Anna Oliwek’s brother
    Esther – Anna Oliwek’s sister
    Millie Schlein – Nathan’s daughter
    Medji Golde – sister to Esther
Author’s father’s family
Ida – author’s grandmother
    Jacob (Jack) Luxenberg – Ida’s son; married Esther (they divorced); married Beth Cohen
    Manny  Luxenberg – Ida’s son; second wife Shirley
    Rose Boskin - Harry and Ida's Luxenberg's daughter
Bill Luxenberg – brother of Jack; married to Lil
    Hy and Hank – brothers; cousins of Jack Luxenberg
Hinde Donofsky – aunt  to Jack Luxenberg
    Hy Donofsky – first cousin of Jack Luxenberg; married to Fran Rumpa

Friends and Acquaintances
Elaine Klein
Milton Arm
Fred Garfinkel – married to Barbara
Sid Frumkin – married to Marilyn; Fred Garfinkel’s brother-in-law
Ann Black – Sid Frumkin’s sister
Faye Levin Emmer
Molly – Faye’s sister
Jacob and Kay Robinson
    Irene Robinson – their daughter; married David Doren (second husband)
    Sylvia Robinson – their daughter
    Millie Moss Brodie – Irene and Sylvia’s first cousin
        Laurie Brodie Green – Millie’s daughter
    Marty Moss – Millie’s brother
    Julie Reisner
        Ellen – her daughter
    Sam Reisner – Julie’s brother
        Neil Reisner – his son

Detroit, Michigan
Northern High School, Detroit
Eloise Hospital,(Wayne County General Hospital and Infirmary, Michigan
Hebrew Memorial Park Cemetery, Clinton Township, Michigan
Radziwillow, Ukraine
Brody, Ukraine
Lomza, Poland
Novomoskovsk, Ukraine

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