Miriam Frank reveals how a suitcase of photos led to her second memoir
08 June, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
Kate Frank with a young Miriam
REFUGEES rarely hang on to anything personal as they escape the danger of death. But Kate Frank, a free-thinking German communist, did so long ago when she fled from the fascist civil war in Spain across the border to France.
With her – and her two-year-old daughter, Miriam – she clutched a single suitcase containing precious photo albums depicting her early life studying as a paediatric nurse in Stuttgart, life in Helgoland and seeking freedom from oppression in Catalonia.
And, more importantly, a record of delightful, Bohemian days in the idyllic Mallorcan village of Deia, where she had a fling with anarchist film-maker Louis Frank, an American counter-intelligence spy.
Now at 81, Miriam, born in Barcelona in those 1930s troubled times, has delved into those albums to help recreate, just like a frantic jigsaw, her mother’s saga. This unbelievably poignant memoir – her second – is now in print thanks to Islington publisher Martin Ryna.
Miriam reveals she was dubbed the wandering Jew when her first memoir was published in Israel. Indeed, a description easy to appreciate why her second memoir is appropriately entitled Unfinished Portrait: Journey’s Around My Mother.
With the rise of Hitler and the invasion of France, Kate and Miriam eluded capture by the Vichy police – and possible internment in Auschwitz or some other Nazi death camp – to make it initially across the sea to Casablanca.
There they embarked on the Portuguese ship Serpa Pinto packed with refugees sailing to Mexico, Miriam completing her primary education in Spanish while living in a fascinating community of refugee radicals and artists, among them Leon Trotsky, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo and Wolfgang Paalen.
Next stop was joining relatives in New Zealand where Miriam went to university and graduated in medicine – in English. From there she headed for the Hadassah University Hospital, in Jerusalem, before returning to Europe and arriving in England via a visit to Deia where she was conceived.
Such is its beautiful, seashore landscape that Miriam also conceived the idea that she wanted to paint, to be an artist.
It was yet another talent to add to her already growing skills as a linguist and translater, subsequently becoming a lecturer and consultant in anaesthesia at the Royal London Hospital, in Whitechapel, and working at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children.
Without a mother tongue of her own, though she picked up some German from her mother, she has learnt to speak fluent Spanish, French, English, Hebrew, and is now even learning Greek.
“Languages really form your brain and contribute to your intelligence,” said Miriam. “I not only kept switching languages according to the countries we were in but also adapting to new countries, new cultures, new ways of life. And that makes you very adaptable in the end.
“You may lose a great deal changing countries but it is also a hugely enriching experience. And it adds to your wisdom if you collect it all up and make good use of it.”
So it was a doctor friend from New Zealand, now in London, introduced her to the artist Rudolf Kortokraks, the disciple and designated successor to Oskar Kokoschka’s School of Vision in Salzburg.
“He wanted to paint me instead,” Miriam recalled. “That’s when we got together. He came from Germany where his parents were very much in the resistance against Hitler, and I felt he understood my background, my viewpoints. And I felt comfortable with him.”
Romance followed, they married and lived first in Muswell Hill before moving to Duncan Terrace, Islington, in 1980, with their two daughters. By then, her mother Kate had caught up and come to London, where she died in April, 1984.
Serendipity intervened in the following years as a busy consultant and Miriam discovered that her mother had left her treasured photo albums with her own daughter Rebecca, and eventually began to delve into them, reconstructing her life during the great upheaval between two world wars.
“The photos were all frozen moments of her early happy existence before it began to fall apart,” Miriam explains. “It was only in her 20s that her world turned upside down while, with me, I was born into it and never knew anything different.
“Rather than write a chronological sequel to my first book, I decided to research the past and then return to it,” explains Miriam, whose husband died two years ago after they had separated.
“I wanted to go back and investigate it because, after all, it led to my birth. And it turned out to be a very emotional and traumatic journey putting the jigsaw together.”
The research too revived her love and closeness to her mother at moments when they were reliant on each other to being tracked down in war-torn France, something acknowledged by a Bulgarian writer who read her first memoir. “Thank you for writing this book and making the world a less lonely place,” she said.
“That put into a sentence what I have been setting out to do,” Miriam pointed out. “She was someone who was displaced. And I thought it very important to write about this upheaval from the point of view of giving back to the world something from what I received.
“We lost a lot as refugees and went through so much pain and suffering having to start anew in every new country. But in the end I learnt a great deal too. It’s extraordinary now when I read there are 65 million people displaced in the world today.
“We are all like a snail with a shell on our backs. You just need to take your home everywhere you go, re-start and make a new one and not forgetting your past, carrying it all inside you – and all your memories – forever.”
• Unfinished Portrait: Journeys Around My Mother. By Miriam Frank, Gibson Square, £14.99