Prisoner of Her Past (2010)

Director: Gordon Quinn

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It has been a Kartemquin week for me. First, I saw No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010). Then, Kartemquin’s cofounder Gordon Quinn opened his film Prisoner of Her Past at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Both films are very personal—the first, a chance for director Steve James to learn more about his home town through the lens of what appeared to be a racial incident, the second, a son’s investigation into his mother’s tragic past. Both films range beyond the immediacy of these personal stories to explore their larger implications—that’s the Kartemquin way. Prisoner of Her Past raises awareness of a phenomenon that many thousands of people are or will suffer from during their lifetimes, thus offering hope that a correct diagnosis and follow-up treatment will help them.

During the night of February 15, 2001, a petite, elderly woman named Sonia Sys Reich bolted from her modest home in Skokie, Illinois (where I make my home), and went screaming down the streets that someone had threatened to put a bullet in her head. The police picked her up and brought her to a hospital emergency room, from which her son, Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, retrieved her and eventually had her admitted to a nursing facility. Mrs. Reich’s delusions mixed her lifelong paranoia with strange rituals and thought fragments that seemed purposeful. For example, Mrs. Reich would take a loaf of pumpernickel bread Howard would bring to her each visit and divide it into exactly 10 baggies; she would keep half the baggies and give the other half to Howard. She also constantly complained that no one was going to turn her into a whore, and that books she was given to read had swastikas in them. What could these actions and thoughts mean?

It took about a year for Reich to receive a definitive diagnosis of what was afflicting his mother. Her psychiatrist, Dr. David Rosenberg, said Mrs. Reich was not suffering from dementia, that she was well aware of the world around her and could interact with it. Rosenberg, who has 40 years worth of experience with Holocaust survivors, said, “Your mother has late-onset PTSD with bells and whistles.” Posttraumatic stress disorder, of course. Both of Reich’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Reich put on his journalist’s cap to uncover exactly what had happened to his mother during World War II in hopes that the truth might help restore her to something of a normal life.

Because Reich’s parents had told them almost nothing about their wartime lives, all he had to go on was his mother’s mutterings, that is, until he opened a letter his mother had received from Irene Tannen, the aunt who had adopted her after the war. Irene had written a letter of concern when phone calls to Sonia’s home went unanswered. Reich barely knew of Irene’s existence. Reich, Quinn, and his crew traveled to New York to interview Irene, another survivor who remained tight-lipped, repeating what many survivors say, that there are no words to describe what they went through. She does, however, come through with a photo of Sonia and Sonia’s grandfather and cousin Leon.

Reich follows the trail to Poland, where he connects with Leon and Leon’s son Peter. They all travel to Dubno, formerly part of Poland but now in Ukraine, where Sonia’s childhood home, the old synagogue, and Leon’s old home are still standing. The people living in the homes are gracious; the pleasant owner of Leon’s home gives him a huge armful of Ukrainian apples, which Leon praises.

Of course, the return to Dubno reveals many of the horrors that Reich traveled to find. A woman takes Reich to a large field which she says holds two mass graves. She witnessed Ukrainian soldiers round up Jews and machine-gun them into pits. A soft snow falls like cold tears on this killing ground. Leon, Peter, and Howard go to a Dubno museum dedicated to the memory of the town’s Jews. Leon and Howard note the complete absence of bystanders in the dioramas showing how German troops rounded up the Jews.

Nonetheless, although Reich never finds out the particulars of his mother’s experience, he walks the streets where she walked, sees the window from which she and her brother escaped the ghetto into which Dubno’s 12,000 Jews were herded by the Germans, and learns a bit about the family from Leon. Sonia Sys’ home had been occupied by members of the Red Army when she was 8, and her family of four shoved into a back room. The Germans invaded when she was 10. Extrapolating from statements Sonia has made, she and her brother spent the next four years hiding and surviving as best they could, working on farms, carefully splitting whatever food they had. Was Sonia forced to prostitute herself? Reich probably will never know. When Leon makes the trek to Chicago to see Sonia, she refuses to speak with him, though both he and Howard believe she knows who he is. Her survival depends on maintaining her denial of the past, just as Dr. Rosenberg warned Howard and Leon to expect.

Quinn and Reich answered questions after the screening. Reich revealed that his mother is still in the nursing facility, and until a recent surgery weakened her, she spent every night sleeping fully clothed in a chair next to her bed. He said his sister discovered what might have triggered her PTSD—the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death. Reich said his father was outgoing, Sonia’s bridge to the world; he couldn’t point to a single friend his mother had made during her 40 years in Skokie. He said that his mother spent every night at the window in their front room, looking out into the street through a small opening between the drapes.

Interestingly, though Reich’s parents settled in the epicenter for Holocaust survivors—Skokie had as many as 8,000 survivor-residents at its height—it took a year for anyone to recognize what was wrong with his mother. Even in Israel, the disorder was not recognized; now, two large centers to help Holocaust survivors with PTSD have been opened. And Reich and Quinn traveled to New Orleans and filmed mental health workers interview girls who survived Hurricane Katrina, recognizing one girl with a flat affect as someone who might be vulnerable to delayed PTSD because she is distancing herself from her experience.

Prisoner of Her Past is under an hour long, and a number of the details revealed in this review I learned from the after-film discussion. While I admire the odyssey Reich undertook with Quinn in tow, the seven years spent on Sonia’s trail don’t come across as completely as they could on screen. I was confused about various relationships, particularly Irene’s. Reich wrote a long article about his mother for the Tribune and used the article as the basis for a book, and I filled in blanks with these two documents. Nonetheless, Prisoner of Her Past presents a touching portrait of Sonia Reich, horribly victimized and horribly haunted. It’s a great place to start learning about PTSD and the need for healing in all the scarred regions of the world.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    12th/04/2010 to 10:08 pm

    I honestly, Marilyn, cannot believe that this film runs under an hour, not with the plethora of details and information you relate as comprising its duration. But it’s fascinating, heart-wrenching stuff, and a film I’d like to see myself at some point. Like a number of the others you’ve examined lately there’s a worth and value in the cinema, that often far outstrips our hedonistic dependence on entertainment.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/04/2010 to 10:15 pm

    Sam, as you know, I’m a great fan of the documentary form. I might even like it the best of all filmic endeavors. It’s not easy to warm to Sonia because she is rather incoherent and childish when we meet her. But her refusal to acknowledge Leon – well, it’s clear that she has some level of understanding about who he is. It is then that my heart really went out to her and stayed with her through her touching walk with her granddaughter, which is the lead photo of this review, a look at this battered woman who has returned in her mind to the age of her granddaughter. And to think that in many ravaged parts of the world – Rwanda, Liberia, Bosnia, New Orleans, Haiti – new PTSD and late-onset PTSD victims have been made and need help.

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