UPDATE: Howard Reich offered this correction to the post:
I wanted to clarify one tiny point, which you could not have known from watching the film alone. Although it’s not shown in the film, I actually did prepare my mother for Leon’s visit — for several weeks I had talked about him, told her I had visited him in Poland and that he was coming to visit her. Unfortunately, nothing was going to get past the wall she has built around herself, separating herself from her past (or trying to).
ORIGINAL POST: The late, great Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote that each heroic journey begins with a call to action.
For Howard Reich, the call came on the evening of February 15, 2001. For it was on that evening that Sonia Reich, his mother and a Holocaust survivor, packed some clothes into two brown shopping bags, donned her winter coat, locked the door to her Skokie home, and fled.
When asked why she was taking these actions, the elder Reich explained that someone wanted to “put a bullet in my head.”
This disturbing sequence of events pushed Reich out of his previous approach of dealing with his and his family’s Holocaust history-a style that might fairly be characterized as a combination of silent avoidance-and into a deeper consideration of his mother’s wartime experience, and his own identity.
During the past half-dozen years Reich has shared his unfolding understanding of his mother’s past and evolving condition in a series of formats. The first was a series for the Chicago Tribune, where he is an award-winning jazz critic, but was then a relatively new memoirist. The second product was a full-length memoir, The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich. And now there is a film titled, Prisoner of Her Past.
Reich was generous enough to give me a copy of the film during an enormously enjoyable lunch we shared Monday with Frank Ochberg and his wife Lynn, an accomplished artist and maple sugar maker.
These projects each show Reich venturing deeper and traveling farther away from home and deeper within himself. The Tribune series recaps the catalytic events described above, and goes on to describe Reich’s often fruitless struggle to understand his mother’s condition. Despite her living in Skokie, home at different points to one of the world’s highest concentration of Holocaust survivors, Reich’s mother is unable to get a clear diagnosis for a long time for what ultimately is identified at late-onset Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because of her condition, Sonia is unable to distinguish between her current existence and the trauma she experienced during the Holocaust, when she was on the run and in hiding for four years.
In the memoir Reich goes deeper into his childhood experiences. After surviving the war, his mother met and married his father, also a survivor who lived through a death march. The couple ran a bakery and an enormously strict household with plenty of unexplained restrictions, vehemently expressed opinions and absolutely no conversation about their wartime experiences
I am familiar with a related type of silence and parental tension, though my sense is that what I experienced was different and less intense than what Reich went through. My father was born in Germany and left before the war on the Kindertransport at 5 years old. When my brothers and would ask Dad about what life had been like before the war, he would stiffen, yet say he remembered nothing.
The First and Final Nightmare chronicles Reich’s gradual exploration of his mother’s past, deeper sense of his own cultural and religious heritage, and sense of self. If this greater self-awareness is the boon from his journey, his journalistic training and storytelling skills are some of his major tools.
He applies both in the film, Prisoner of Her Past. This hour-long documentary shows Reich traveling within the United States as well as to Poland and the Ukraine in search of information, family connections and inner peace. The first two are an almost unqualified success, as Reich gets more insight into what his mother endured and stronger ties with a number of relatives, including his mother’s cousin Lonek, who is one of the film’s most compelling characters.
The third part of the quest appears a bit more elusive at the film’s end. Even as Reich has taken up the mantle of generational storyteller and has arrived at a more informed and compassionate position toward his mother, he still must confront the wistful knowledge, gained during some time he spent in post-Katrina New Orleans with displaced children and psychiatrists Joy and Howard Osovsky, that it did not have to turn out this way.
He also seems at times to not completely accept his mother’s situation, which, to be fair, is probably wildly unpredictable and constantly changing. I am thinking here of one of the film’s most painful scenes, in which Reich brings Lonek to see the cousin he has not set eyes on for more than six decades. Although Reich had prepared Lonek for the moment by showing him video of Sonia, he did not do the same for his mother.
The result is predictably disastrous.
Sonia refuses to acknowledge that she knows the man, let alone allow him to hug her. Although Lonek understands intellectually the reasons for her action, at the time he is devastated (Reich takes him to some vintage Chicago jazz to ease his pain.).
The movie’s final shot is of Reich and Sonia embracing and stating that they love each other before Sonia walks away under her own steam. The persistent love of a still independent mother and her son pushing through the psychological difficulties Sonia is a potent image, and seems perhaps the most fitting reward Reich has earned from the journey that began close to a decade ago on a cold February night. Reich deserves credit for his honesty and willingness to show us a little-explored aspect of the Holocaust as well as for his courage in exploring new formats through which to express himself.