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My Innocent Absence

A linguistic, medical, artistic diasporist

    By Miriam Frank
    Arcadia, £15.99

    Miriam Frank has experienced enough in one lifetime to fill several more. Her family tree - spreading out from her German-born mother (who became a Mexican citizen) and Lithuanian-born father (who took US nationality) - maps the Jewish diaspora of the 20th century.

    Frank's own journey took her from Europe to the New World, thence to the Antipodes, the Americas again, via Israel, and on to a long career as a consultant anaesthetist at the London Hospital, becoming the wife of the German artist Rudolf Kortokraks, and mother to his two daughters. She now has homes in England, Greece and Italy.

    It was while taking up her first medical practice, in Jerusalem in 1963, that she used the multiple languages of her well-travelled background to best effect: "In the course of my work, I spoke English, the language of their textbooks, with my medical colleagues; my basic German allowed for a dialogue of essentials with the Yiddish-speaking patients; my Spanish likewise with the Ladino-speaking, Sephardic ones; and French worked with those who came over from North Africa.

    "The only patients I could not converse with were those from the eastern Arab countries who spoke only Hebrew and Arabic". A problem solved, when she "set about learning the history of this country, beginning with the Old Testament: a Hebrew edition with an English translation alongside it". All this in a bedsit decorated with Mexican rugs, New Zealand seashells and Israeli glasswork.

    The litany of countries is embellished with a cast eminent artists, scientists, politicians and celebrities. In 1941, at five already in flight from Spain to France to Morocco, Frank was taken by her mother on board the Serpa Pinto to Mexico, where she mixed with an important group of photographers and artists.

    Her vignettes of people - Kokoschka in Salzburg, Gombrich in London - and places are equally well observed. Rome, she recalls "as a brown city. The soft sunlight brushing the brown rusts, ochres, violets, honeys. Massive stone doorways and arched marble entrances, with maybe a glimpse of an ivy-covered courtyard and potted palms inside".

    The book's title references the inherent guilt of the survivor and opens with a prologue describing a belated reconciliation with her mother who, in her final illness talked of friends and family in war-torn Europe: "Like them, she could have had her life cut short, shared their grim fates. And I, along with her, long before I understood what was going on around me".

    Frank's story is more than that of a survivor, however. It is that of a woman who, having triumphed over adversity, is able brilliantly to celebrate the richness of a full life well lived.

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