Steve Luxenberg - Official Website

Behind the Book: A Detective Story


Column after column of names from the past, from the 1930s, from the streets that my mom called home while growing up in Depression-era Detroit. I stared at the microfilm in the subdued light of the National Archives reading room, a time traveler to my mother’s teenage life, looking for names of her friends or classmates.

I didn’t recognize a single one.

To understand my mother’s reasons for hiding her sister’s existence, to learn as much as I could about my secret aunt, I was trying to reconstruct the world as Mom and Annie knew it in 1940, the year of Annie’s institutionalization for mental illness at Eloise Hospital outside Detroit. To see what Mom saw, I had to find the people who lived in her apartment building, or went to her school, or listened to her account of what had happened.

Mom couldn’t help. When she died in 1999, she left behind almost nothing that hinted at the secret she kept for nearly 60 years. Like any mystery, the story that would become Annie’s Ghosts had to be pieced together, bit by bit. City directories yielded a list of neighbors, and school yearbooks gave me the names of classmates, but could I find them? Were any still alive? Did they know about Annie’s condition? Had they talked to Mom or Annie? Would they remember what they said?

Clues rarely came to light in a neat or sequential way. Many paths led to dead ends, while others led to obituaries confirming that Mom’s generation was rapidly shrinking in numbers. Slowly, however, a picture came into view, much like the paint-by-number canvasses that Mom lovingly labored over in the 1960s.

The book tells that story. Here, I have included a visual narrative of photos and documents that go beyond the words and images that appear in Annie’s Ghosts.

Annie’s Court File

In April 1940, at the suggestion of a doctor at Harper Hospital in Detroit, my grandmother filed a petition in the Wayne County Probate Court, alleging that her daughter was insane. Two weeks later, a judge sent Annie to Eloise Hospital on a temporary detention. The doctors who examined Annie reached different conclusions about whether she would benefit from confinement and treatment at Eloise, a county facilty for the mentally ill. Click any image below to read the court records.

Radziwillow and the Holocaust in Ukraine

The town of Radziwillow, now part of western Ukraine, plays a prominent role in Annie’s Ghosts. My grandparents both left Radziwillow before World War I, emigrating to the United States. A cousin, Anna Oliwek, was eighteen years old when a Nazi-led killing squad massacred 1,500 Jews there in May 1942, including Anna’s mother, sister and brother.

Anna’s account of how she survived the Holocaust is a remarkable one. An excerpt that tells her story appeared in The Washington Post Magazine on March 15, 2009.

When Anna came to Detroit after the war, she learned of my mother’s secret and could not accept the idea that Mom was hiding the existence of a living relative. They argued, and that led to a falling out that they never repaired. After meeting Anna in 2006, I visited Radziwillow so I could better understand her views. See photos of the mass gravesite, the town, and Anna below.

The Power of Family Secrets

A photograph of my mother, the secret keeper, appears in the upper right corner of the home page, along with one of my grandmother and a page from Annie’s court record. Mom is the one in white, on the beach. (I never found a photo of Annie.)

Below is a gallery of photos and documents, including several not found in the book, that helped me piece together the story of Annie’s Ghosts.