PEOPLE: Lena Straus Spiegel

Visiting the Ann Frank Museum: a reflection by Holly Shulman.


Ann Frank
Ann Frank

This is a guest post by my historian sister,  Holly Shulman, who recently presented a paper at a conference in Amsterdam. While she was there she visited the Ann Frank Museum, hosted by one of the curators, Dienke Hondius, who later asked Holly what her thoughts were about the museum. This is Holly's response. 


Dear Dienke,

Here is an attempt to answer your question as to why I found the Anne Frank House Museum personally disorienting.

The nub of the question is what are we doing when we remember (and commemorate) Anne Frank: something about the Jewish experience, or something about the human experience?

When I was a child the holocaust was talked about in our house, but it was not the subject of general conversation – in society, in politics, in literature – that it later became.  That, of course, is the subject of Hasia Diner’s book, We Remember with Reverence and Love.  Perhaps 1945-1968 (with the publication of Arthur Morse’s When Six Million Died) was a kind of limnal or marginal period of remembrance.  In my house we talked about my parents’ German backgrounds, especially my mother’s.  She remembered my grandmother trying to find who might still be living among her German relations, but could locate no one.  Her family on both sides had arrived around 1850 as part of that general wave of German emigration to the US, and like so many Jews had steadily moved West until they reached Chicago.  One of their relations sent home letters during the American Civil War that remained extant and are published as A Jewish Colonel in the Civil War.  And like so many immigrants, my mother’s family kept many German ways, especially their food, but also the practice of Christmas, which was, after all, a German holiday by way of England.  Many German Jewish families had Christmas meals and presents, and as the German practice was to buy a tree on Christmas Eve, so it was the custom of my grandparents and my parents.

By the late 1930s, after my mother’s family could discover no living relatives in Germany, my mother and my grandmother joined an organization to sponsor Jews trying to flee Hitler.  My mother even received a letter (in German) from Albert Einstein after they tried to save two mathematicians and their son (unsuccessfully).

So I knew about the holocaust. It related to the history of my family, and I felt both gratitude and guilt that I had been born in the United States – a sentiment I think shared by virtually every American Jewish child of my age.

But reading about it as a child was not simple.  There were no books, as there were by the time my daughter Rebecca was a child.  By then there were a ton of memoirs and stories from survivors and children of survivors.  But in the 1950s we simply and only had Anne Frank.  There were no movies that I remember, or radio shows, to which we still listened.  We were, as many have written, very concerned with being American, even as American a family as mine, and swept up in the universalism of the era.

The story of Anne Frank had a huge impact on me as a member of a German-Jewish upper middle class family who wanted for nothing and who were on the one hand politically and socially Jewish but on the other totally alienated from Judaism as a religion.  (My father’s side was a bit more complex in its background – but that is another story for another time.) This mixture of no religion and complete Jewish identity – at least with their German Jewish past – is central I believe to any understanding of the meaning of Judaism in the post enlightenment world.  Being Jewish is more than a religious belief.  It is being part of a people and a history.  What in Hebrew is called Am Israel, the Jewish people. As a child the holocaust was there, always there, but always distant.  It was The Diary of Anne Frank that made it all real.  Not the camps, of course, but the fears and the hiding and the drumbeat of threat.  I remember reading the book so clearly.  I must have been 10 or 11.  I took it to bed with me to read at night, and after I shut off the light the fears and shadows of the book were like a fog wrapped around me, they crept inside of me and stayed somewhere in of my body.  With Anne Frank I knew, I KNEW, I was Jewish and that I would remain Jewish, and that Hitler would not win.  Anne Frank cemented my identity as a Jew.  Reading her Diary was an act of affirmation.

As an adult I thought about her and her book less and less.  I read more Jewish history.  I sent my children to a Jewish nursery school and we joined a synagogue.  Being Jewish became part of the daily pattern of my life, even while struggling with the notion of a God and becoming an atheist.  The most recent books about Europe and fascism and the destruction of the Jews that have meant a lot to me are more like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In the Shadow of the Shtetl.

It is against that background that I saw that Anne Frank House – at your gracious invitation and marvelous hospitality.  What I saw was an Anne Frank who is no longer a symbol of the destruction of the Jews, and of the always recycling hatred of the Jews, but a generalized emblem of victimization, of the problems of power and authoritarianism, of the results that can occur when ordinary people are too afraid to speak up.

In that light, I suppose I felt that Anne Frank now belongs to the world, but in a sense not to me.  You may think this a very odd comparison, but let me contrast Anne Frank for a moment to Queen Esther.  Every year Jews remember Queen Esther for saving the Jewish People, and Purim became a very important holiday in Europe because all the cycles of destruction and attempted destruction became folded into that one story.  But Purim was and remains Jewish.  There is no holiday celebrating Anne Frank, but all those visitors are commemorating Anne.  Esther is particular, ethnic, and globally irrelevant.  Anne is for everyone.

After visiting with you I felt a bit dizzy.  Part of me celebrates that Anne Frank can become such a potent figure of dignity and the fight against oppression.  But part of me experienced a loss – of a childhood figure who had once crept into my body as I lay in warm sheets falling asleep and told me stories that changed my life.


Here are some random shots of new and old things we have at PSAW today:

 Psaw art is my weapon
Just in from TMNK, Art Is My Weapon T-Shirts in a variety of sizes.

 Psaw clipboard
Very cool and fun French Script clipboards from Timeworks, Inc. Clock Company. I also carry the American Baseball one. @ $12.75 this will be a great holiday present.

 Psaw magnet frames
Always popular, The Magnet Frame from Canetti. 5x7, these pure acrylic frames open and close like a dream, held by tiny powerful magnets. @ $28. Photos in the frames are by me, Liza Cowan, except the one of two old fashioned girls who are my grandmother Lena Straus Spiegel and her sister Hettie.

 Psaw button and beads
Random button and beads. The Lampwork beads are by Madelyn Erb, Mad Glass Beads.

 Psaw monopoly pieces
Monopoly pieces.

 Psaw fireplace ginny
The cozy new electric fireplace. On top: Tea cup print by Ginny Joyner, real teacup and teapot by Shinzi Katoh, fine art laminated mid 20th Century ads.


Visitors to the gallery often ask me if I still paint or take photographs. The answer, by and large, is "no." I don't have time to make art and run a gallery. It's not that I don't have a free minute here and there, but it is almost impossible for me to flip my frame of mind from business to art. That's particularly true for painting, which, for me, requires a lot of uninterrupted time with paintbrush in hand. If you paint, or write, or do any kind of creative work, you probably know what I mean.

What I still do, however, is graphic design. From greeting cards, to ads to postcards, I can do it all on the computer and somehow manage. It's fairly easy for me to move freely back and forth between design and retail management:  customers, ordering inventory, answering the phone, research, dusting, planning shows etc. It is a boon that I can save the work in progress and come back later and it's exactly how I left it. No drying time either.

Another great reason to make postcards : they are future collectible ephemera. So hang onto yours. And for goodness sakes, if I hand you one, don't fold it in front of me. Few things grate on my nerves as much as watching someone mangle my art.

So here are two of my latest. My postcard printers - I use Image Media and love them - were having a 25% sale, so I made a new general card, as well as the one for the August exhibit by Los Angeles photographer Aline Smithson.

postcard, pine street art works, Lena Spiegel, elegant lady 1940's, feathered hat, horn rimmed glasses, varnished nails, Liza Cowan design

Pine Street Art Works, Postcard. Design: Liza Cowan 2009

Here's my grandmother, Lena Spiegel, as my poster girl. Isn't she elegant? You've seen her before in this blog, and she's at it again - helping me out. No stranger to retail, her husband, my grandfather, Modie Spiegel, started Spiegels, yes, that one, the big mail order company. His portrait hangs over my desk and I try to absorb some retail moxy from him. I am the only person in my fairly large extended family who is in retail, so I like to think I get all of his attention.

But it is Lena who claims attention for her own foxy self in her feathered hat and varnished nails. The text next to her, in case you can't read it on the screen, says "I'm Lena Spiegel. My granddaughter owns the store. So shop already."

Blog aline postcard 

Aline Smithson, Arrangement in Green and Black #3, postcard for Pine Street Art Works 2009

Aline Smithson's amazing photograph does the heavy lifting in this postcard. Her show is going to be fantastic. Four photos each from three series - can't wait. Come by in August if you are around.


I decided to use this exquisite portrait of my granny for my new ad and card. Thanks to my fabulous cousin Barbara Linhart for giving me this photograph.

6a00e54fabf0ec883300e55223186c8834-800pi Ad for Pine Street Art Works, Summer 2008. Liza Cowan design

My grandmother died when I was three, so I never  really knew her. I don't even know if she liked to be called granny. Maybe she preferred grandmother, or Oma.  I guarantee you that she wouldn't have been called  Bubbie, which is what she would have been had we been Eastern European rather than German Jews. Whatever.  I've always felt like we had a special connection, so when my cousin gave me part of her collection of photos of Lena, granny, Oma, I was thrilled.

Here's one of her as a child.

Lena and Hattie.
Hattie and Lena Straus, sisters. Ligionier, Indiana

Lena Straus age 14
Lena Straus at 14. Ligionier, Indiana

Lena 1906
 Lena Straus Spiegel, 1906, in Chicago.

She was already a mother of two. And she looks so much like me, or rather, at this age I looked so much like her in this picture, that I get a shock every time I look at it. It's like someone has played a joke on me, and photoshopped my face into my granny's body. But that's not what happened. Its just our DNA.

Photobooth liza may '08
Liza Cowan, self portrait using iMac photobooth, May 2008

I don't know how old my grandmother was in the first picture, but probably within a decade of what I am now, which is almost 59. Here's me. I think most of the obvious similarity between us ended at about age 25.

Liza lena composite
But here's us together in a composite photograph. I did this on iMac photobooth, holding up the (folded) photo of grandma. We kind of match. I've never done this kind of composite before, and I don't know how unusual it is for the proportions to be so similar, but they are. In other words, our chins, mouths, noses and eyebrows line up pretty exactly. The portrait of Lena is almost three quarter view so the angle of the glasses is a bit off, but otherwise we line up. I think I'll have to try this technique with some other portraits of people who are not related to me and see what happens.



Today is my mother's birthday. Had she lived, Polly Spiegel Cowan would be 95 years old today. She died when she was a mere 63, but she lives on in the hearts of those who loved her.

Polly cowan at redding (small)
Polly Spiegel Cowan, Redding CT, circa 1948. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner

Lena 1906 (small)
My grandmother, Lena Straus Spiegel.

It's Lena's birthday too, after all. On this day in 1913 she gave birth to the last of her four children.

And finally, a picture of Polly Spiegel Cowan and little Liza Cowan. I wouldn't be here if Polly hadn't been born.

Steiner liza&polly (SMALL)
Polly Spiegel Cowan and Liza Cowan. Circa 1952. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner.


 With Tibet in the news recently, I thought I’d expand on a piece I have on my website about  my cousin Zina Rachevsky and my travels in Nepal.

Zina Rachevsky
  In the 1980's I lived in Woodstock, NY, practically in the shadow of the Tibetan Buddhist Monestary Karma Triyana Darmachakra (KTD). Although I was not a practitioner, I lived with one, which I thought gave me some in-law status.

White Tara, tibet goddess, liza cowan painting
White Tara, acrylic on canvas by Liza Cowan

In 1983 or 1984, my partner and I decided to go to India and Nepal. She wanted to see the Lamas and Tibetan Buddhist shrines and I was in search of information about my cousin Zina Rachevsky, who, it is told, had been the first foreigner to study with Tibetan Lamas, (or second after Alexandra David Neel.) 

Zina and her family had always been somewhat of mythical figures in my family. For one thing, the Straus family was fabulously wealthy. In 1921, Simon William Straus -  (Zina's grandfather, my grandmother's brother)  founder of SW Straus & Co., held loans on new buildings across the us worth $150,000,000. (NY Times, Dec 3, 1922) In 1924 they completed construction on  the Chicago building that is now known as Metropolitan Tower, the first Chicago structure taller than thirty stories. It was then known as "The Straus Building." SW Straus owned the Ambassador Hotels in Los Angeles, New York City and Atlantic City. He died in 1930. The company went into recievership, it went under, in 1932 after defaulting on bonds totaling over $200 million.

Zina was born in 1930, the same year her grandfather died. Zina was known to us a wild child, but in the 1950's, when I was a child listening to the stories, that could be another way of speaking of an independent, curious woman. She spent much of her early adulthood working as actress and gaining a reputation as an international socialite, knew the Beat Poets, and eventually made her way to India and finally to Dharma.

Zina Rachevsky  
Zina Rachevsky, actress 1953

Zena's father, we knew, claimed Russian nobility. While the Russian nobility fable is a large part of Zina’s current mythology, in my family we were more interested in our side, the Jewish side. Zina's mother and my mother were first cousins. Zina's grandfather and my my grandmother were siblings. They were all German Jews, who had been in the United States since the middle of the 19th Century, and had made their fortune first as peddlers, then as bankers with huge real estate holdings throughout the country. They settled first in Ligonier,  Indiana, creating one of the first and largest Jewish communities in the midwest.  The family then moved on to Chicago and then to New York.

Zina, in the stories written about her, is usually referred to as a Russian Princess. It is  not likely that Zina actually thought of herself as a Russian Princess. Certainly the rest of the family knew that her common-born father's common-born sister had married a dethroned Russian Duke, which doesn't equal royalty by any inheritance laws anywhere. Not a drop of royal blood coursed through her veins. However, it was a clever way of branding herself when she was creating a name for herself as an actress and a showgirl. The meme seemed to have stuck with  her friends and acquaintences and became part of her public persona. Certainly, it made her memorable, and most likely reduced the amount of anti-Semitism that might have been an obstacle in those days.

Update: It turns out, in fact, that the Russian Rachevsky's were most likely Jews as well. Converted to Catholicism, for various reasons, but Jews. Did Zina know this? I don't know. But it seems that she was, by blood, 100% Jewish.

I didn’t think much about Zina until I became interested in Tibetan Buddhism. She had visited us in New York only once, but I had no memory of her. But when I found that Zina had been involved with Lamas in India and Nepal soon after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, I knew it was something worth investigating.