The Interpreter: A Jewish girl named Anna Schlajn took on a fake identity and escaped death at the hand of the Nazis

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By Steve Luxenberg
Sunday, March 15, 2009

She was 18. After going over my cousin Anna's account with her multiple times to fill in the gaps and get the chronology straight, I find myself starting with that simple fact:

In October 1942, Anna was just 18 years old when she fled the western Ukrainian town of Radziwillow with only the vaguest idea of where she was going; just 18 years old when she walked into a Nazi occupation headquarters with little more than an improbable tale and a facility for language; just 18 years old when she deceived the Nazis into believing her masquerade as the daughter of a German mother and Ukrainian father.

Within a month of escaping certain death in Radziwillow at the hands of a Nazi-led local killing squad, she had secured herself a job as a translator for the Wehrmacht's military police, a sensitive position, a position of trust, a position reserved for a member of the German Volk, the German people.

As I examine the documents detailing Anna's deception -- including her Arbeitsbuch, the Nazi-mandated workbook that lists the dates and places of her employment -- I marvel at her guile, her cleverness, her charm. What part of the family DNA gave her the ability to pull off this subterfuge -- and to maintain her pretense not for weeks or months, but for nearly three years?

***

At a restaurant in suburban Detroit, I study Anna Oliwek's features, searching for a resemblance, and I'm not sure I see one. She 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 confirms my first impression.

I've only just become aware of this cousin of mine. A half-century ago, a fight with my mother over a family secret led to a falling out that caused a permanent rift between our families. My mother, Beth, had chosen to hide the existence of a disabled sister, Annie, who spent all of her adult life in a county mental hospital outside Detroit.

It's a complicated, delicate story that came to light without warning or provocation not long after my mom's death, in 1999. Mom had always told us she was an only child, and I've been engaged in a reinterpretation, employing my skills as a journalist (and my empathy as a son) in trying to understand her motivations, my aunt's unknown life and the times in which they lived.

"I've had my hair done for you," Anna says. I tell her I'm flattered and slide into the chair next to her.

Anna's a widow now (her husband died in 1991), but except for occasional problems with diabetes, she seems in good shape: spry and still feisty. She and David, her 55-year-old son, are midway through dinner. I've come for coffee, maybe some dessert, and to hear Anna's view of Mom's secret.

Unlike others I've interviewed from Mom's generation, Anna says she couldn't comprehend my mother's decision to turn her sister into a secret, couldn't accept it, couldn't stomach it, really. "The sister was still her sister," she tells me. "I know she [the sister] was sick, but she couldn't help it... She's still family."

Family. That's the word that Anna kept using. "I am family," she had fumed, when Mom had told her to stop meddling in her family's affairs. To understand Anna's unshakable fury toward Mom, I had to understand Anna's family -- not the one she raised in America, but the one she lost in 1942. I had to understand what had happened in Radziwillow.


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