Student Essays About Prisoner of Her Past

Journalism students at Loyola University Chicago recently watched “Prisoner of Her Past,” in advance of Howard Reich’s visit to the school, and wrote essays on the film. Here are a few of their articles.

Jane Pollock, Loyola University Chicago (Direct Link to this essay)

         Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich used his reportorial skills to uncover a dark mystery, a mystery locked in his aged mother’s mind, and he recounts his efforts in a documentary film called “Prisoner of Her Past.” When Reich’s mother Sonia was found one dark Skokie night running outside and screaming that she was being chased by Nazis, Reich realized that something horrible lurked in Sonia’s psyche. She had never shared with her son her horrendous experiences during World War II.

         The film introduces the audience to Sonia in her retirement home, charming and witty and totally closed off from her wartime life. What captivates the audience is Reich’s almost archaeological search to find out what happened to Sonia, since the details were hidden beneath the layers of defenses his vibrant mother had built up in order to have a successful postwar life.

         Reich travels to the Ukraine to find out the truth about his mother’s family members and their fate. While he seeks the facts, Sonia claims she has no knowledge of the relatives, never letting her line of defense be breached by her son’s curiosity and the evidence he uncovers.

         The cinematography pulls the audience right in to the heart of darkness, as the camera angles in on a location where more than 12,000 Jews were killed. Rain is falling, and an eyewitness to the tragedy in that area weeps as she relates what occurred there, the rain becoming an exaggeration of the tears on her cheeks. This scene was moving and the cinematic aspects helped to portray the horror that must have occurred in that spot.

         The film touches on many themes, like love for one’s family, the importance of humor, and the capacity to survive even the most inhumane circumstances. Also, the film serves as a reminder how convenient it is to look the other way when genocide happens. It happened 60 years ago in Europe and continued to do so after that, in Eastern Europe and Africa. The lingering aftereffects of such inhumane actions may be put aside, but, like Sonia, they never go away, no matter how deeply buried, and threaten to resurface.

Gabby Demirdjian, Loyola University Chicago (Direct Link to this essay)

         “Prisoner of Her Past” tells the unforgettable story of Sonia Reich, an elderly woman diagnosed with late-onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The documentary is told through the perspective of Sonia’s son, Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Reich, who set out to learn the story of his mother’s upbringing in effort to better understand her strange demeanor. But it didn’t take long for Reich to realize just how deeply rooted his mother’s pent-up childhood memories were.

         Howard’s investigation sparked after an incident in 2001 when Sonia fled her suburban home in the middle of the night and frantically claimed Nazis were trying to kill her. According to Sonia’s psychiatrist, the strange visions and thoughts she was experiencing stemmed from her fearful past that suddenly began to haunt her daily.

         At only 11 years old, Sonia’s mother told her to escape her childhood home in the Jewish ghetto of Dubno, Poland, for a chance of surviving the Nazi regime. Decades later, Howard remembered his mother’s untrusting tendencies and paranoid behavior while he was a child but never found them odd at the time.

         Howard said his mother never once spoke about her past to anyone. When he attempted to ask, Sonia refused to comply. And as her mental state increasingly weakened without definitive medical answers, Howard reached out to distant relatives for any kind of insight. With feelings of intrigue and desperation, he built an investigative plan.

         Howard started his journey in New York City, where his relatives described Sonia to be “very stubborn” and unapproachable as a child. And yet, none of them knew nor asked about her survival experience. He continued on to Warsaw to meet his mother’s cousin, Leon Slominski, who lived a much different childhood after being saved by Czech farm workers during his escape.

         Unlike Sonia, Leon openly recalled his past as a “series of moments” that flash in his mind. He is saddened to hear of his cousin’s deteriorating state and offers to return with Howard to pay Sonia a visit. But when they arrive at the nursing home, hopeful Leon receives anything but a warm welcome.

         Sonia describes herself as a “plain lady” and doesn’t understand why these men, presumably Nazis, keep harassing and calling her names. She also believes her thought processes and rituals are completely normal and she remains just as stubborn and untrusting as ever.

         But while Sonia expresses moments of severe delusional and unusual conduct, she can also be “with it” and aware of her surroundings. She even has a hilariously sarcastic sense of humor, whether it’s intentional or not.

         Howard’s documentary is a profound example of not only the great affects that late-onset PTSD has on its patients and their families but also the importance of counseling children who experience traumatic events. Through its themes of survival and inquisition, Howard’s endless love and persistence to understand his mother’s condition is relatable on so many levels. The parent-child roles have inevitably switched for Howard and Sonia, but he will always admire her strength: “She is still in control.”

         “Prisoner of Her Past” is scheduled to air on PBS later this month.

Sofia Carlson, Loyola University Chicago (Direct Link to this essay)

         Howard Reich is known for his jazz prowess and ability to convert that knowledge into words that even the most basic jazz novice could understand.

         Reich has now taken on a new and more introspective story to cover with his upcoming documentary, “Prison of Her Past.” The subject is something new for Reich, especially because it revolves around his mother, Sonia Reich.

         Based on the book, “Prisoner of Her Past,” Reich explores the hazy past of his mother, who has hid her tragic past for more than 60 years.

         Always closed off about her childhood, his mother never gave Reich a suspicion that she had actually been alone and on the run from the Nazis for five years as a child.

         Reich’s entire perception of his mother changed drastically one cold winter night when Sonia, then 69 years old, packed two brown bags of belongings and fled her Skokie home, alerting neighbors that Nazis were trying to kill her. She was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, likely caused by her experiences during World War II.

         Sonia remains alert of her surroundings, she knows her age, her location, her kids and every other fact of her life. The fear of Nazis is just a nightmare that still follows her, even in her old age.

         Throughout the entire film, the narrative flashes back to the psyche of Sonia and the clear perils she is facing in her mind. Refreshingly, each time she speaks of a negative encounter, her fiery attitude and perseverance shine through.

         Full of heartbreaking moments, the film transports the audience to Dubno, Ukraine, showing living conditions of those in the Holocaust that few have seen.

         Despite Reich learning little more than what his mother could have went through, the film documents Reich’s journey to find out more about where he came from, showing Sonia’s cousins who went through similar traumas.

         What it most interesting, is the comparison made between Sonia and her cousin Leon, who went through a very similar situation of running from the Nazi regime.

         Leon openly speaks of his hard times, something he has come to accept and acknowledge through story-telling, whereas Sonia’s silence has appeared to come back and haunt her.

         The documentary shines light on something rarely talked about, how are those who did survive the Holocaust coping? What is helping some survive the trauma while others remain cripplingly scarred?

         The documentary is set to be aired on PBS within the coming weeks.

Heather Morrison, Loyola University Chicago (Direct Link to this essay)

         “Prisoner of her Past” is a touching documentary about a son’s journey to uncover the details of his mother’s tortured past.

         The film follows Chicago Tribune journalist Howard Reich on his quest to understand his mother’s history after discovering that she spent a large part of her childhood fleeing Nazis during World War II.

         This discovery was made after Reich’s mother, Sonia, was found walking the streets of her Skokie neighborhood one night insisting that someone was trying to kill her. In the film, Reich is informed that Sonia’s behavior is a result of late-onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is causing memories of her traumatic childhood to resurface nearly sixty years later.

         Reich, who prior to the incident had no knowledge of his mother’s past, embarks on a journey across the U.S. to Eastern Europe with a surviving relative of Sonia’s to find out the truth behind the memories that haunt his mother.

         The film doesn’t spend too much time detailing the effects of PTSD, but the audience still gets a feel for what the disease entails through glimpses of Sonia’s life in a nursing home.

         While Sonia seems aware and alert of her surroundings in the present, the extent of the disorder’s devastating effects are made evident in a particularly heartbreaking scene where Sonia is reunited with a childhood relative and fails to remember or embrace him.

         The film is harrowing at times, but overall, it is an informative and moving tale of journey, discovery and family.

         The documentary is based on Reich’s book, “The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir.” Reich also serves as producer, writer, and narrator of the documentary, soon to be broadcast on PBS.

Eleanor Diaz, Loyola University Chicago (Direct Link to this essay)

         Thirteen years ago, Sonia Reich grabbed her shopping bags filled with clothes, abandoned her Skokie home and scuffled across the bitter streets to escape an imagined enemy that threatened to shoot her. Today, Sonia is still reliving her terrifying past as a Holocaust survivor.

         “Prisoner of Her Past,” a documentary directed by Gordon Quinn, follows Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich as he attempts to uncover his mother’s history and what led her to be diagnosed with late-onset Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although Sonia holds the key to uncovering the past, she refuses to confront it.

         “I am not a prisoner. This is America,” she said.

         Howard Reich gently unfolds the layers of his mother’s hysteria as he travels to Warsaw, Poland, and Sonia’s birthplace in Dubno, Ukraine, accompanied by Sonia’s Polish cousin Leon Slominski.

         Throughout Howard’s adventure, he introduces family members that contribute valuable memories to Sonia’s past. The relations between characters are often hard to contextualize and are better explained in the accompanying memoir by Howard titled “Prisoner of Her Past: A Son’s Memoir.”

         The hour-long documentary thrives on dichotomization. The image of a Ukrainian stranger offering an armful of apples is contrasted with an elderly woman who points to a pasture where she witnessed hundreds of Jewish people murdered.
The film also spotlights the difference between Holocaust survivors Leon and Sonia. Leon is able to confront his past and learn to trust because he experienced childhood, while Sonia was thrust into a life of fleeing and hiding. When the two finally meet, the distinction is powerful and frightening.

         A soft underlying eeriness accompanies Howard as he gently pieces together the mystery of his mother’s past. The viewer watches the family slowly unravel Sonia’s strange behaviors that led to her outbreak: continually checking the locks, staring out the window in the middle of the night and hiding childhood pictures.

         The deep melancholy tone and eeriness are often interrupted by upbeat jazz interludes that contribute little to the documentary’s flow. When Howard shares that he escaped discussions of the past by immersing himself in music, the volume of background piano music steadily increases until it drowns out Howard’s voice. What’s forgotten is that the viewer, and Howard himself, have committed to confront the past and should no longer be distracted by music.

         Although his mother’s emotions jump from one memory to another, Howard’s devoted presence and patience forces the viewer to desperately hope for a scene in which Sonia makes a spontaneous recovery.

         “Prisoner of Her Past” demonstrates a deep complexity and adds a human presence to the diagnosis of PTSD, a title that’s associated with soldiers and warfare. It weaves a complicated web of characters to produce one woman’s hidden past. The documentary is scheduled to air on PBS April 13 and is worth an hour of your time.