Original Chicago Tribune Series by Howard Reich
NBC 5 Chicago (Video)
New York Daily News
The Washington Post
Time Out Chicago
To read the original Chicago Tribune series by Howard Reich, visit the Chicago Tribune website.
Howard discusses the film on NBC Chicago
— a “poignant film” – Chicago Sun-Times
“One of the most emotionally wrenching yet rewarding films I have recently seen.”
– The Huffington Post
— an “astounding story” – Chicago Tribune
“This is difficult material, so kudos to Kartemquin Films for chronicling the Reich family’s journey with an unflinching eye.” – Jewish United Fund News
“Dry-eyed but deeply moving. … Riveting stuff.” – Chicago Reader
Howard Reich discusses the film on NBC Chicago
“Beautifully crafted…” – Accolade Awards * WINNER Best of Show
New York Daily News
THE HORRORS OF WAR NEVER RECEDE
April 4, 2011
By Stanley Crouch
One of the remaining wonders of our technological time is the power of the documentary to refute propaganda and deal with the true tragedies of history. “Prisoner of Her Past” is such a work; it is about Sonia Reich, who, as a child in Eastern Europe, was not murdered with 6 million others for that greatest of sins, according to bigots: being born, a problem demanding solution. As the film shows, one of the grandest and most bittersweet aspects of human existence is that we use what we understand of the past in order to make up for the shortcomings of the present. But in an unavoidable irony, we also use what we understand of the present to avoid past mistakes.
The picture is vastly complicated if the past includes traumatic brain damage that makes it impossible to even approach the horrors one has experienced. That results in the mind shutting down memory, refusing to even share the past with relatives or close friends. The past becomes a blank with no colors or nuances.
On the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death, the mother of the very fine Chicago Tribune jazz writer Howard Reich was found wandering around Skokie, Ill. She had packed her suitcases, convinced that someone intended to put a bullet in her brain.
In the process of trying to help his mother, Reich discovered that she had an affliction we are still trying to understand. It can happen to a person when the memory of something almost insufferably terrible is suppressed in order to simply make it from day to day. But that inevitable memory returns, bringing with it psychological chaos that snarls into the present with blood on its teeth.
Even as she lives in a rest home today, Reich’s mother is sure that there are people ready to kill her and her family. Her suitcases remain packed and she sleeps in a chair every night after staring out the window as slumber sends her into the privacy of her memories.
Much of the film that we have of Nazi atrocities is the result of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower sending out word to the international press corps to film and photograph the death camps and the Jews in them who remained alive, along with the mass graves filled with naked corpses. Eisenhower said that if the chilling images were not recorded, in 50 years some would say that no such thing ever happened. He made the right decision, but was not entirely correct: Today, such deniers are spitefully alive and loud.
That is how it always goes. The heartbreak of this film centers on a relative of Reich’s mother who was with her when some Eastern Europeans took them in at the risk of their own lives. I have never seen anything more moving than the way this man recalled horrors that would overwhelm most; and yet, he also remembered with indelible nostalgia the best moments of their lives, when they felt safe among those who would not betray them.
Near the end of the film, Howard Reich sits with a Catholic school class of very appealing black girls who made it through Hurricane Katrina and now suffer guilt and nightmares similar to what his mother is still unable to talk about.
He understands that human empathy is the only substantial guarding force against the rabid dogs of bigotry that bark from within every version of the human race. Denying that fact puts the entire world in perpetual peril.
“Prisoner of Her Past” will be shown this Thursday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at no charge and will appear on PBS later this month. Be brave enough to sit for an hour. You will never forget it.
The Washington Post
July 14, 2006 Friday
Hunted and Haunted
BYLINE: Carolyn See, www.carolynsee.com
SECTION: Style; C03 , BOOK WORLD
LENGTH: 1007 words
THE FIRST AND FINAL NIGHTMARE OF SONIA REICH
A Son’s Memoir
By Howard Reich
PublicAffairs. 200 pp. $22.95
Howard Reich, for many years jazz critic for the Chicago Tribune, grew up in that city — first in Germantown where his parents owned a bakery, and then in the primarily Jewish suburb of Skokie. His parents were immigrants, survivors of the Holocaust, but they didn’t talk about it. For a while young Howie was told to keep the whole thing a secret, and he did. The past his parents had lived through didn’t mean a thing to him. He was a kid with his own life, growing up, first above that bakery, then in a “tiny” two-bedroom house with a little sister. None of it seemed to be material for a horrifying memoir.
Howard’s father, Robert, was amiable but explosive, and after they moved to Skokie he perpetually argued with his ill-tempered relatives, many of them concentration-camp survivors as well. Howard’s mother, Sonia, a wisp of a woman less than five feet tall, worked hard for the family. Except for his parents’ thick Middle European accents, everything seemed normal enough. The home one grows up in — however strange or off-the-wall — defines “normal” for the child who grows up in it. So this routine didn’t seem strange to Howie: “At night, my father slept in one bedroom, I in another, my sister on the living-room sofa, and my mother watched the hours go by in the kitchen, sipping black coffee late into the night. . . . My mom then moved into the living room, near my sister’s sofa, seated herself on the floor at the picture window and peered through the narrow space between the frill of the window shade and the sill underneath.” And there she stayed.
“I did not consider any of this unusual,” Reich writes, and why should he have? He was busy growing up, going through his bar mitzvah, getting more and more fed up with the never-ending dramas and feuds of his dad’s relatives, discovering his own love for music and then journalism, trying — as do we all — to find an identity for himself that would separate him (in an appropriate way) from his family.
His parents were high-strung and overprotective. As a child, he always had to be in the care and company of an adult. And one night in his teens, when he was just an hour late coming home from the library, they called the cops on him. But, again, what was so overly weird about that? All parents are weird — embarrassing. That’s what parents are for.
When Howie got older, his father traveled with some of the family back to Poland, to face down some of his demons: back to Sosnowiecz, his old home town. Howie was so clueless about the real meaning of this journey that he asked his dad to bring him back a souvenir that had something to do with Chopin. Sonia went along, but they didn’t visit Dubno, the Eastern Polish town where she had lived as a child before the war. “We didn’t go,” she said. “Why do I want to go there?”
Life rolled by. Howie married. His father died. The mean relatives drifted off. His mother lived alone, getting a little strange, taking a gallon of water with her wherever she went. And then one night she ran away, insisting that there was a man in her house who wanted to put a bullet through her head. That’s when this memoir turns horrifying, almost beyond belief. His mother isn’t “crazy” in the conventional sense. She knows what day it is and who’s the president, and the names of all the police and psychiatrists and social workers who now become part of her life. But she’s institutionalized and lives in a constant state of rage and fear, stuffing slices of bread into her fanny pack, hoarding her water, always on the lookout for the man who wants to put the bullet through her head.
Events converge. A relative of his mother’s turns up and tells an awful tale. Sonia, who has used several other names during this narrative, was never in a concentration camp. Instead, it turns out, Dubno was the scene of constant massacres during the war, a place where 12,000 Jews were brutally murdered by Poles, Germans and Ukrainian police, and only a few dozen survived. Sonia, just a girl, was one of them.
The author is new to this material. He learns it in stages and through the lens of being a journalist. He approaches the awful, the unendurable, the unbearable by “chasing the story,” making his own journey to Dubno, conducting interviews with one of Sonia’s surviving relatives — interviews that age them both and give them nightmares. Little Sonia survived as a feral child, with other children who watched their parents be slaughtered; these children fled to the forest with other relatives, who abandoned them. They were hunted for years like animals by soldiers and police.
What Reich’s mother suffers from, then, is post-traumatic stress disorder. The man who wants to put a bullet through her head was there when she was a child, threatening to do just that.
Reich broadens this one horrible story to include all Holocaust survivors.
Is this why his father drank, lashed out, had nightmares? Why his relatives, having been so degraded, spent their time degrading each other? The author believes so. “Surveying the psychological wreckage of this war,” he writes, “I couldn’t help thinking of the children of the world today — in Iraq, Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Afghanistan, Darfur, Liberia.” In a book of fewer than 200 pages, Reich presents us with a ghastly vision. (And it’s a vision not likely to improve; human beings love war too much.) He can end this awful story only with a salute to his mother’s incredible bravery. All through her suffering, rage and terror, she kept things together for her husband and children as best she could. Now Reich can only do what a good son should do — honor his father and his mother, in the best and perhaps the only way possible.
May 15, 2006
Reich, Howard. The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir;
Young adult review;
BYLINE: Cohen, George
SECTION: Pg. 10(1) Vol. 102 No. 18 ISSN: 0006-7385
LENGTH: 258 words
* Reich, Howard. The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir. June 2006. 272p. Public Affairs, $25 (I-58648-362-5). 362.19.
Reich’s Jewish mother lived in the town of Dubno, Poland, as a child. In 194 I, when she was II, she began a four-year journey of running and hiding from the Nazis, coming to the U.S. when she was 16 (having never been educated beyond the third grade). She worked in candy and clothing factories in Chicago and met the author’s father, a survivor of a death march to Buchenwald, on a blind date. On February 15,2001, when she was living in Skokie, Illinois, she packed some clothes in two shopping bags and fled, believing that someone was trying tokill her, “to put a bullet in my head.” She was diagnosed as having late-onset post-traumatic stress disorder, was admitted to a psychiatric ward, and then to an assisted-living facility. “In the midst of my mother’s stunning soliloquy of rage and delusion, of anger and fearand accusation” Reich writes, “I finally, belatedly, incredibly realized that this was all about the war, and what awful things must havehappened to my mother when she was a child, pursued because she was a Jew.” Reich is the Chicago Tribune jazz critic, a correspondent forDownbeat magazine, and the coauthor of Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton (2003). His book is a compelling and compassionate memoir, a moving story of a loving relationship between a mother and son.–George Cohen
YA: The vivid storytelling and powerful subject will draw teens. NG.
PsycCRITIQUES – Late-Life Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the Holocaust: A Son’s Story
Late-Life Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the Holocaust: A Son’s Story
A review of The First and Final Nightmare of
Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir
by Howard Reich
New York: PublicAffairs, 2006. 200
pp. ISBN 1-58648-362-5. $22.95
H. Russell Searight
At age 69, Sonia Reich, a widowed Eastern European immigrant and mother of two, was picked up by the police after she ran from her house insisting that people were trying to kill her. She seemed terrified of something only she could see. Ms. Reich soon became worried about imaginary Stars of David on the refrigerator and the walls of her house. Later, after she had moved into a nursing home, Ms. Reich insisted that the other residents were calling her “a dirty Jew” and a “Kike.” Ms. Reich’s symptoms came on fairly suddenly, without any history of formal mental health treatment. When evaluated in the emergency department and psychiatric hospital, Ms. Reich’s apparent confusion was accompanied by intact orientation, attention, concentration, and short- and long-term memory, thus making dementia highly unlikely. Her son, Howard, a jazz critic for the Chicago Tribune, was bewildered and a bit frightened by his mother’s dramatic changes. He felt responsible for his mother but was also made aware that Ms. Reich, not an imminent danger to herself or others and capable of self-care, could not be held in a facility against her wishes for an extended time.
Howard Reich’s memoir is primarily an account of how his mother, a Holocaust survivor, developed late-life posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The book is written for the general reader and does not focus solely on mental health issues. Reich describes growing up in Chicago during a period in which his parents gradually readopted their Jewish identity and heritage. He also visits the Eastern European village that was his mother’s childhood home.
Howard Reich’s Family and the Holocaust
Reich’s early childhood was spent in Chicago’s Little Deutschland neighborhood, where his parents ran a German bakery. As a young child, Reich was told that his Jewish background was to be kept secret. After moving to a new neighborhood and leaving the bakery, his parents became more open about their heritage and sent Reich to Hebrew school. Eventually, Reich’s family moved to Skokie, a Chicago suburb with a large concentration of Holocaust survivors. By this time, Reich had heard brief fragments of his father’s experiences in a Nazi labor camp as well as on a forced march to Buchenwald. His mother said even less; she had been on the run and, as a child, slept in the snow. There were day-to-day events in the Reich household that hinted at a deeper, darker past. As a child, Reich noted that his mother always seemed to be awake throughout the night—often checking the door locks multiple times, then staring out the window for long periods as if watching for something. Reich’s father was always in angry, drawn-out conflicts with various members of his extended family:
Our house often shook with battles typically
waged on the telephone, my father arguing with
one relative or another, loudly smashing down
the receiver or jumping as it was slammed
down on him from the other end. It was hard to
tell what all the yelling was about, but it often
seemed to involve invitations that should have
been forth-coming, gifts that should have been
made, thank you notes that should have been
written and a thousand other perceived slights.
These people simply did not trust each other, or
anyone else. (pp. 36-37)
Occasionally, family members mentioned Holocaust experiences, but it was hard for the young Reich to know exactly what to make of these disclosures:
“I was in camp with Anne Frank—she was right next to me,” bragged one of my aunts. “I was saved by Oskar Schindler,” retorted another. “I saw my grandfather’s head cut off,” said a third apparently hoping to make up in gruesomeness what she lacked in celebrity cachet. These discussions provided a gateway to other areas of dispute, the brothers and sisters and in-laws shouting at each other over what one person had said or done five minutes or five years ago. (p. 37)
It was only after his mother’s late-life illness that the true horror of her childhood came to light. Reich, through conversations with relatives, travels to Ukraine and Poland, and a few fragments shared by his mother over the years, pieced together her terrifying, primitive, lonely struggle for existence. As a preadolescent child, his mother spent years running and hiding from the German army—often without any adult support. While hiding in a field, she saw a woman beheaded just a few feet away from her. At one point, she was found on a farm by a friend of her aunt’s. “Lice crawled on my mother’s scalp, her clothes were dirty and torn, her fingers and feet had turned red with frostbite” (p. 70). Research on PTSD and the Holocaust Available research suggests that close to half of Holocaust survivors may have developed PTSD in later life, with up to 80 percent having some residual symptoms (Kuch & Cox, 1992; Sadavoy, 1997).
Although sparse, available research suggests that the majority of Holocaust survivors with psychiatric symptoms have never received formal mental health treatment (Kuch & Cox, 1992). In some instances, PTSD may have persisted for years unabated, whereas in others like Sonia Reich there may be a lifelong pattern of subclinical distress (in her case, pronounced insomnia was a chronic symptom). Throughout most of her adult life, Ms. Reich remained awake, like a sentry on watch, throughout the night, only later erupting into full-blown, late-life PTSD. Although heterogeneity among Holocaust survivors makes generalizations difficult, PTSD in this population has been associated with alexithymia (Yehuda et al., 1997) and greater explicit memory impairment on paired associate tasks (Golier et al.,2002).
Of note, adult children of Holocaust survivors with PTSD may themselves be at elevated risk for developing PTSD in response to a stressor (Yehuda, Schmeidler, Giller, Siever, & Binder-Byrnes, 1998). When Should Denial Be Respected? Although Reich continues to marvel at his mother’s ability to remember the names of physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals whom she has just met, emotional numbing and efforts to avoid remembering had been her long-term coping style. In 1978, when her husband was alive, a Nazi organization obtained considerable media coverage when they attempted to organize a march through the heavily Jewish community of Skokie. Whereas Reich’s father was openly angry (“I’ll get a bat and break his head if he marches”; p. 59), his mother withdrew: “My mother didn’t say a word—at least none that I can remember. She exiled herself to the kitchen working, scrubbing, forgetting herself—or trying to— in a never-ending circuit of duties” (p. 59). Years later, when she was convinced that the other residents of her nursing home were trying to kill her, Ms. Reich continued to avoid direct confrontation with her past, even while it was creating daily terror. After visiting his mother’s childhood home and the village of Dubno, Reich returns with photos. Although Ms. Reich carefully looks at the pictures, these images are more than enough for her and are clearly distressing:
By the time my mother reached the end of the photos, she had become agitated, a stiff expression coming over her face. Though she did not deny that these images came from Dubno… she abruptly ended my little exhibition. “You can pack up the pictures and put them back in the envelope,” she said to me sternly. “I do not want to remember this.” (pp. 179-180)
Many therapists may viscerally respond to Ms. Reich’s “avoidance” as a defense needing to be challenged so that her symptoms will remit. Reich, by the end of the book, reaches a respectful acceptance of his mother’s efforts to cope through avoidance. I am not sure how many of us would reach the same conclusion. However, I am impressed with Reich’s humanity, and I hope that I would be able to show that same respectful concern to aging trauma survivors.
Useful Lessons for Clinicians
Sonia Reich’s initial diagnosis was “delusional disorder with auditory hallucinations.” Although not a clinician, the author correctly points out that this label tells us very little about his mother—it is a perfect example of psychiatric diagnosis as a description masquerading as an explanation. This issue is well illustrated in Molière’s play Le Malade imaginaire (The Hypochondriac). During a doctoral candidate’s oral exam, the learned professors ask him the final question: “Why does opium put people to sleep?” The candidate confidently answers, “Because it has a dormitive principle” (meaning it puts people to sleep). The learned professors cheer; the candidate has answered correctly and passes his exam. However, the candidate has done little more than rename the phenomenon; he has explained nothing.
This superficial understanding of Ms. Reich’s symptoms is something of which I am sure that I have been guilty at times. Once a seemingly accurate diagnostic label is applied, there is a reluctance to probe further. However, particularly with depressive or anxiety symptoms that do not seem to make sense, are atypical, do not fit a customary symptom pattern, or fail to respond to reasonable evidence-based interventions, I urge our family practice residents to ask one valuable screening question: “Have you ever been in a situation where you were afraid that you or someone close to you was going to be hurt or killed?” The unusual rituals and atypical fears often become far more comprehensible when the patient describes a history of domestic violence, crime victimization, or child abuse. Apparently, the health care team evaluating and treating Ms. Reich did not pose this potentially illuminating question to the patient or her son.
Reich suggests that mental health professionals’ neglect of trauma history with Holocaust victims may represent a conspiracy of collusion. Many Holocaust victims have coped for many years by relying on a “false self” that may outwardly appear successful through work, friendships, long-term marriages, and commitment to child rearing (Sadavoy, 1997). Underneath this show of successful adaptation lie vulnerability, profound fear, apprehension, and suspicion. With the diminished energy and physical health of the later years, there are fewer internal resources to keep the turmoil of the trauma at bay, and painful memories become relived. As a psychologist, the accounts of war trauma survivors are the most devastatingly awful narratives I have ever heard. Patients often become tearful, agitated, and frightened discussing these memories. It is not surprising that we unconsciously collude with our patients to avoid these accounts by failing to ask. Although uncomfortable, we do our patients a disservice by failing to understand their symptoms’ origin and meaning. However, like Reich’s eventual acceptance of his mother’s “delusions” as a means of surviving a painful flood of childhood images and fears, there are times when we should respect the struggle not to remember.
Golier, J. A., Yehuda, R., Lupien, S. J., Harvey, P.
D., Grossman, R. I., & Elkin, A. (2002). Memory
performance in Holocaust survivors with
posttraumatic stress disorder. American Journal of
Psychiatry, 159, 1682-1688.
Kuch, K., & Cox, B. J. (1992). Symptoms of PTSD in
124 survivors of the Holocaust. American Journal
of Psychiatry, 149, 337-340.
Sadavoy, J. (1997). A review of the late-life effects
of prior psychological trauma. American Journal of
Geriatric Psychiatry, 5, 287-301.
Yehuda, R., Schmeidler, J., Giller, E. L., Siever, L.
J., & Binder-Byrnes, K. (1998). Relationship
between posttraumatic stress disorder
characteristics of Holocaust survivors and their
adult offspring. American Journal of Psychiatry,
Yehuda, R., Steiner, A., Kahana, B., Binder-Byrnes,
K., Southwick, S. M., Zemelman, S., & Giller, E. L.
(1997). Alexithymia in Holocaust survivors with
and without PTSD. Journal of Traumatic Stress,
PsycCRITIQUES January 10, 2007 Vol. 52 (2), Article 7
1554-0138 © 2007 by the American Psychological Association
January 1, 2008
The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir;
BYLINE: Melson, Robert
SECTION: Pg. 195(3) Vol. 26 No. 2 ISSN: 0882-8539
LENGTH: 923 words
The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir, by Howard Reich. New York: Public Affairs, 2006. 200 pp. $22.95.
For the most part survivors of the Holocaust have proved to be remarkably resilient. If they were young and physically fit, they were able to emigrate from the Displaced Persons’ camps where they wound upafter liberation. In the new countries of emigration–usually the United States, Israel, Australia, Canada, and Latin America–they were able to find jobs or found new businesses, to marry and to raise new families.
Nevertheless war and genocide did not leave them unscathed. Even the strongest among them suffered from heart-breaking and terrifying memories and nightmares. In the privacy of their thoughts and dreams they returned to the ghettoes and the camps where they saw their lovedones killed. If they survived in hiding, they experienced the recurrent terror of an abandoned, hunted animal. However they survived, they felt the irrational guilt of the survivor–“I don’t deserve to live”–or the realistic guilt of having abandoned loved ones who had depended on them in order to save themselves.
If anything, such memories, anxieties, and nightmares–what psychologists have labeled PTSD: “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders”–became worse as the survivors grew older. When they were relatively young and trying to make it in their new homes they were so preoccupied with quotidian matters that their memories were kept at bay by the daily post-war struggles of work and family. When the demands of work eased a bit, and the children grew up and left home to make it on their own, survivors started to have time on their hands, but it was a dangerous period in their lives. Time left them open to invasion by unwantedmemories and anxieties. They were especially in danger when they hadlost a beloved mate, another survivor with whom they had establisheda life after the war. With his or her death they lost the only person who truly understood them and could share their current anxieties and past memories.
Howard Reich is a jazz critic for the Chicago Tribune and a writerfor DownBeat magazine. He is also the son of Sonia and Robert Reich,Holocaust survivors, who had made a home for themselves and their two children after the war in Skokie, near Chicago. Years after Howard and his sister had left home and had established separate lives from their parents, Robert died and Sonia suffered a severe mental breakdown. She thought that she was being followed by unknown assailants whowanted to kill her: “I heard his voice in the house. He said, ‘I’m going to put a bullet in your head.'” And so she fled her home, wandering the streets until she was picked up by the police and brought to the emergency room of a local hospital.
Ever the loving and dutiful son, Howard tried to help his mother and to understand her illness. However, it wasn’t until a psychiatristsuggested PTSD that it occurred to him that her symptoms were related to her wartime experiences. He knew her story in outline: When she was ten years old, Sonia had fled the Dubno ghetto as it was being liquidated and had lived in hiding among Polish peasants for four years. After the war she had met Robert, a survivor of the camps; they married and emigrated to the United States.
What had happened to her while she was in hiding Howard didn’t know. Except for some cousins left in Poland, most of her family had been killed. Believing that by piecing together her story he might help his mother recover, and driven too by a reporter’s inquisitiveness, Howard set out to discover Sonia’s remaining relatives in Poland. In Warsaw he met Leon, Sonia’s first cousin–an attractive and accomplished retired military officer–who had grown up with her in Dubno and who like her had fled the ghetto and survived in hiding. Together withLeon, Howard traveled to Dubno and there he met some elderly Ukrainians who had known his mother and her family. With the help of these witnesses he was able to piece together the terrible story of the liquidation of the Dubno ghetto by the Einsatzgruppen, Order Police, and local people. He also found confirmation for one of his mother’s seemingly paranoid fantasies: At the start of the German occupation of her town, when his mother had tried to smuggle bread to starving Sovietprisoners of war, she had been caught by a German guard who had threatened to put a bullet in Sonia’s head.
Armed with his new-found knowledge and photographs of Leon and of Dubno, Howard returned to Chicago to help his mother piece her story together. But Sonia was beyond help. She refused to speak about the past or to look at the photos. She remained in her paranoid state, comforted mostly not by Howard’s understanding but by his presence.
This is a powerful and affecting story of a survivor’s breakdown long after the Holocaust and of her son’s valiant but vain attempt to help her. Though the spotlight remains on Sonia, her past and currentsuffering, it also illuminates her son. Until his mother’s breakdownHoward had kept the story of the Holocaust and her experiences at bay. Growing up in America, he and his sister had wanted to lead normallives, freed from the anxieties of the past, and had feared knowing the details of their parents’ survival. Once Howard became engrossed in his mother’s illness, her story became his own, and he, like so many children of survivors, the second generation following the Holocaust, could not help but be affected by memories of a terrible past.
The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir
Public Affairs, New York,
2006, $24.95, pp. 200
Haunted by Yellow Stars
As a child, Howard Reich, a Chicago Tribune jazz critic, imagined himself an all-American boy living with his parents and younger sister in a cramped ranch house in the predominantly Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois. He may have watched The Honeymooners and found inspiration in An American in Paris, but there were a few pronounced eccentricities in his upbringing: His parents hid their Jewishness from the German-Americans who shopped at their bakery. He was forbidden from taking showers. And his mother, Sonia—who was 10 when the Nazis invaded her hometown of Dubno, Poland—guarded her offspring with a zeal few mothers could muster.
“At night my father slept in one bedroom, I in another, my sister on the living-room sofa, and my mother watched the hours go by in the kitchen,” Reich writes in The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir, “sipping black coffee late into the night. Throughout the evening, she walked to the front and back doors, checking to make sure that the locks had been dead-bolted shut, the little chain protector fastened into place. Three, four, five, 10 times in a row she would tug at the door latch and push at the chain. Long after all of us had fallen asleep, my mother turned off the lamp in the kitchen, but only after she had switched on a night-light. My mom then moved into the living room, near my sister’s sofa, seated herself on the floor by the picture window and peered through the narrow space between the frill of the window shade and the sill underneath. I saw her perched at her lookout whenever I got up to go to the bathroom. Silently, she stared through her self-styled peephole, studying the empty street or the occasional car that drove by. I did not consider any of this unusual—it was the normal course of events in our home and, I presumed, every other home, where surely mothers stayed up all night protecting everyone who slept and checked the locks over and over.”
Reich’s father Robert was also a survivor: He was 20 when the Nazis put him to work lifting heavy asbestos plates at Fünfteichen Concentration Camp and he was one of 200 who survived a 6,000-person death march to Buchenwald. Like many young survivors, Sonia and Robert were drawn to each other after the war. Together they constructed an emotional world in which they could live fairly normal lives.
Still, phantoms of the past raise their hoary heads in the guise of excruciating extended family feuds and the utter panic brought on by the planned march of neo-Nazis in Skokie in 1978. But when Robert dies in February of 1991, the past begins to overtake Sonia. At first she behaves more or less like a typical bereaved spouse but as years pass she sees yellow stars littering her lawn, her walls and her refrigerator. She hears voices, too: her husband’s sometimes, but more often that of a man who repeats: “I’m going to put a bullet in your head.”
Ten years later—on the anniversary of Robert’s death—Sonia, now 69, flees her house with two brown paper bags filled with neatly folded sweaters and skirts. She is convinced that the man who is threatening to shoot her has entered her house even though police find no evidence of an intruder. The psychiatrists at the hospital where she ends up find her alert and well-oriented, and are at a loss to explain the cause of her delusions. She refuses the drugs they offer and so remains haunted by yellow stars and imaginary killers. Forced into assisted living, she keeps a vigilant watch on all comings and goings.
Finally, a psychiatrist brought in by the German consulate in Chicago diagnoses her problem—Sonia is suffering from classic late onset “survivor syndrome.” Because she will not talk to anyone about her past, Reich has only one last option: To fill in the blanks of her life for himself in the hope that they will help him to help her.
We journey with Reich to Warsaw and eventually to Dubno, now a part of Ukraine. There, on a street beside the river, still sits a house once inhabited by a girl named Bluma. In this comfortable home, shared with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, Bluma knew sweet and lovely days in a town that pulsed with Jewish life. There were 12,000 Jews, 11 synagogues (including the main one, a grand three-story edifice that is now a garbage dump), Klezmer bands, Yiddish theaters, Hebrew bookstores and Hasidic schools that drew Jews from throughout the region.
In 1939 when Bluma was eight, the Soviet army came to town and commandeered her house, forcing the family to live together in a back room with no door to the outside, only a window. Things went from bad to worse on June 22, 1941, when German tanks rumbled in. Bluma and other Jews were forced to wear white bands with blue Stars of David, then yellow stars. Soviet soldiers were imprisoned near Bluma’s house and one day the girl was caught giving one of them food. A German soldier threatened her with a “a bullet in the head.”
The roundup and execution of Dubno’s Jews commenced almost immediately and continued unabated. Bluma and her family survived longer than most, but huddled in the room without a door, they knew that their time would come. False passports with Christian names were obtained and younger family members were sent out into the world alone. “At some time my mother stepped out of that window one last time,” writes Reich.
Bluma—now Zosia, a classic Polish Christian name—escaped Dubno’s Jewish ghetto and hid in fields and forests for the duration of the war. Little is known of what she experienced except that when she resurfaced, she was infested with lice, and her fingers and toes were frostbitten. Zosia—who was to rename herself Sophie and then Sonia—was one of only several dozen Jews from Dubno to survive.
Survivor syndrome was first identified in 1964 and is a subset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a 1969 study, 130 patients who were believed to have shown no after effects of concentration camp experience all showed signs of “pathology” on closer examination. In particular, children who didn’t have the chance to go through normal adolescent development were found to be vulnerable to delayed onset PTSD.
Like Sonia, whose symptoms took 60 years to develop to the point where she could no longer discern between past and present, most survivors did not seek psychiatric help, nor were they encouraged to. The world was largely indifferent to their personal histories: no one wanted to hear what they had been through. They learned to keep their stories to themselves, even hiding them from their children.
It took decades for it to become socially permissible to speak and write about Holocaust experiences. For many survivors, like Sonia, acceptance—even interest—came too late. And so, Howard Reich spins his mother’s life in reverse, slowly unwinding her fiercely kept secrets. But even armed with details, he can’t reach her. Sonia gazes at the photographs from his trip to Dubno, then sternly admonishes: “You can pack up the pictures and put them back in the envelope. I do not want to remember this.”
Otherwise lucid and aware of current events, Sonia hoards food, imagines strangers want to harm her and remains poised to sprint out the door at the slightest provocation. Reich finally realizes that she is unlikely to ever “get better.” All he can do is admire the way his mother, as a child, faced down mortal peril and her later determination to protect her children. “She had spent several decades shielding me and my sister from the events of her frightening past, and now I feel oddly grateful that she spared me until I was ready to face them, deep into middle age, although that silence took its toll.”
Faced with actual evidence of the reverberations through time of the traumas of war and genocide, Reich is left to wonder about their impact on today’s generation. “Surveying the psychological wreckage of the war this many years later, I couldn’t help but think of the children of the world today—in Iraq, Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Afghanistan, Darfur, Liberia,” he writes. “Youngsters in these war-torn places are suffering from experiences with too many similarities to those my mother and father endured. These children, too, typically receive scant treatment for a disorder virtually unrecognized by practicing psychiatrists.” When, he asks, will the world come to recognize the power that trauma holds over the human psyche? Its consequences last a lifetime, and then some. As can be seen in many Jewish and non-Jewish families, they may take generations to heal.
TIME OUT CHICAGO
The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich
By Howard Reich. Perseus, $25.
This new book by the Chicago Tribune jazz critic is an intriguing take on the Holocaust memoir. Reich’s mother, Sonia, was a Polish Jew who fled persecution with his father, Robert, and landed in Chicago. Raising Howard, they taught him to mask his heritage, and it wasn’t until a move to Skokie that the family felt comfortable with their Jewishness.
Interestingly, the Holocaust is the backstory. The action takes place in the late 1990s and early part of this decade. Sonia is living the life of a grieving though not outwardly depressive widow. But over the course of a few years, she, claims to be speaking with her departed husband. In the winter of 2001, she packs her bags and refuses to return home, claiming a man has threatened to “put a bullet in [her] head.” Though it takes some time, Sonia is eventually diagnosed with late-onset post–traumatic stress disorder, a time bomb the Holocaust placed in her mind half a century before.
Reich’s prose is occasionally too plainspoken, leading to some clunky epiphanies and undercutting much of the suspense. But there’s no denying the power of this story, and one gets the feeling Reich is just trying to get out of its way. Though the Holocaust is the trigger, Reich is able to turn his mother’s story into a fearful look at the way the past never lets us rest.
Time Out Chicago / Issue 69 : Jun 22–28, 2006
Utne Reader, August, 2006
THE FIRST AND FINAL NIGHTMARE OF SONIA REICH
A Son’s Memoir
By Howard Reich (PublicAffairs)
Memoir can help make meaning of trauma, but for Holocaust survivor Sonia Reich, it was not an option. It fell to her son Howard, a jazz critic for the Chicago Tribune, to gather what he could of his mother’s repressed past and make sense of her late-age paranoid hallucinations. His investigation revealed the cause of his mother’s repressed past and make sense of her dementia – a case of the little-understood late-onset posttraumatic stress disorder – and led him to chronicle his family’s history, including his mother’s youth as a Jew hunted in Poland. The result is a tender exploration of a family that reveres its silences. Delivered with precision and guided by emotion, the work avoids melancholy, instead presenting a breathtaking familial panorama that is studded with loss, pain, denial, and, ultimately, honor. – Nick Rose