Life & Culture

A mother and daughter's rift is healed by the family albums

Miriam Frank's new book traces her difficult relationship with her mother, and the way old photographs helped her to make peace with her memories.


For years Miriam Frank was estranged from her mother, Käte. After decades with very little communication, they were only partially reconciled as Käte lay dying.

Three decades have passed since her death. It might have been a relationship that was doomed to remain a painful memory. But thanks to some old photo albums, left by her mother, Miriam was able to trace their past and come to understand why they grew apart. This week, her book, An Unfinished Portrait, is published by Gibson Square, telling the story of how the snapshots brought about a posthumous reconciliation.

The book is a follow up to Miriam’s childhood memoir, My Innocent Absence: Exile on Five Continents, which described her and Käte’s close relationship, often each other’s sole companion, as they criss-crossed the globe fleeing Nazi persecution.

Born in 1907, Käte Lichtenstein was the youngest of four siblings from a German Jewish family. She grew up peacefully in the town of Chemnitz, in Saxony. But following Adolf Hitler’s swift rise to power in the early 1930s, the four found themselves spread to all four corners of the earth.

A Communist from Berlin, Käte first fled to eastern Spain. She settled among a bohemian cabal of political exiles, including George Orwell and Willy Brandt, where she met Louis Frank, an anarchist, film-maker and American counter-intelligence spy.

Her siblings, meanwhile, also fled. One brother hid from the Nazis in Holland, her sister escaped to New Zealand, while her other brother became a chalutz, an early pioneer in British mandate Palestine, helping European Jews settle in the Middle East.

Her early pregnancy was spent in the peaceful surroundings of Deià in Mallorca, also the home of English poet and novelist Robert Graves. But, as the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War loomed, Käte chose to take flight once more, from Barcelona to Casablanca via Vichy France.

As they fled, Miriam’s mother carried just one suitcase. In it were the precious photo albums containing cherished memories from Mallorca and Republican Catalonia, which Miriam would only learn of decades later.

“In the first years we were very, very close,” says Miriam “She had come from a very stable background, and then she went into this upheaval, where there was a clashing of ideologies.

“My mother soon found herself having to flee all over the world, but she always carried her photos with her. Facing the life-threatening situation we were in, the only stable thing in my life was my mother.”

From Morocco, mother and daughter travelled by boat to Mexico City, where they were reunited with her father. Her sister, Evelyn, was born there, but the trio were soon off again, this time to New Zealand, to join Käte’s sister.

“I found it very difficult to adapt and adapt to a different language. And my mother’s support was slipping away. She became hostile and critical,” recalls Miriam.

“She thought I was becoming more distant. People tend to misinterpret autonomy for a lack of love. It was a gradual thing.”

Miriam went on to study medicine, as a “direct response to the horrors of the Holocaust”, eventually leaving her mother for Israel, and then London. She became an anaesthetist at the Royal London Hospital and married artist Rudolf Kortokraks.

Kortokraks, who passed away three years ago, was a “brilliant painter”, Miriam said, but their tumultuous marriage dominated both their lives.

“He was very gruff. Everything was turned around his need to paint. Relationships and everything else fell by the wayside.

“He was highly intelligent. We understood each other very well,” she says.

Her marriage, combined with Miriam’s difficult adolescence in New Zealand and her demanding career, put an unbearable strain on her relationship with her mother. The pair saw each other infrequently, even though Käte and Evelyn had moved to London.

But this changed when Käte fell ill as she entered her eighth decade.

Racing from the Royal London Hospital, Miriam “spent as much time as possible” at her mother’s bedside as her condition worsened. In her final hours, Käte told her daughter, with much difficulty, “I have understood.”

“We will never know exactly what she meant. She died a few hours later,” Miriam says. “It seemed to be an important statement for her. She was talking about our relationship. It felt like we had come to an understanding.”

The photo albums were left to Miriam’s daughter Rebekah. They enabled Miriam to retrace her mother’s life.

“I wanted to know her life and what she experienced living through world wars”, Miriam, now 81, says. “And how it turned her life completely upside down. I wanted to know her.

“I looked at all of the photos with great interest. It made for a great springboard to understanding my mother’s life and understanding what came between us, following what was a very close relationship.”

She wrote part of her family’s history in Spain, in the house where she was born. Set largely against the backdrop of the 1930s and 1940s, the book also provides a close look at both the Second World War and the Spanish Civil War, and at the rapidly changing popular culture.

Miriam says: “At the time, there were a lot of changes happening in the arts and music — it was a very interesting time.”

Does she have any regrets about the deterioration of her relationship with her mother?

“I don’t have any regrets. Things happen the way they do. Neither of us was at fault, it’s just the way it was,” she says.

“I wanted to understand her viewpoint by going through the photos and studying her life. I tried to come to some peace — and I have.

“We were not religious people but I feel ethnically Jewish — my whole life I have felt that way.

“I feel my life, in fact, has been determined by being Jewish. Trying to escape capture, and everything that then subsequently came from that, is because I am Jewish. That is something I will always share with her.”


Miriam will read from ‘An Unfinished Portrait’, at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town on Monday May 22

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