Prisoner of Her Past, a searing hour-long documentary inspired by The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich by Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, is one of the most emotionally wrenching yet rewarding films I have recently seen.
Howard's mother, Sonia, a Holocaust survivor, is living in a nursing home in Illinois and is having unusual trouble dealing with her life. She can't escape her past, yet it's impossible for her to confront it. She lives in a state of almost constant paranoia. It turns out that she is suffering from what is termed "late onset post traumatic stress disorder" stemming from her horrible experiences as a child, running and hiding from the Nazis and their collaborators. She still fears that "they're going to give me a bullet in the head." It is heartbreaking to see Sonia, who otherwise appears to be a healthy and intelligent woman, so completely immersed in her delusions.
Since Sonia, like many other survivors, has always been reluctant to talk about the terrible times she has lived through, some of her past behavior witnessed by Howard and his sister when they were growing up is only now beginning to make sense. They relate many instances that, at the time, did not strike them as particularly abnormal. For instance, Howard recalls waking up in the middle of the night and seeing his mother sitting on the floor in their living room, alert, staring out the front window at the street.
A psychiatrist, whom Howard consults about this, tells him that his mother was "on guard duty," protecting her family. The bad people were still out there after them. One time, Sonia was discovered walking down the street late at night in their hometown of Skokie, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago. She was carrying her clothes in two brown shopping bags, escaping from the evil men who still wanted to put a bullet in her head. The psychiatrist says that Sonia is reliving her past: "The Holocaust has begun again." But perhaps in her mind it never stopped.
Howard decides that he must find out more about his mother's past, to try to better understand her mental pain. So he takes a trip to Eastern Europe, to visit the places where his mother and other members of his family struggled to survive. He and a few others -- including Sonia's Polish cousin Leon, also a survivor -- visit the small town of Dubno in the Ukraine where, at ten years old, Sonia's parents sent her out of her home into the world outside because it was the best chance she had to stay alive. She hid and fled from the evil ones for years. It is hard to imagine how traumatic that must have been.
Howard notes a striking difference between Sonia and Leon. Unlike Sonia, Leon is able to confront his past and even retain a few positive memories from his experiences. Howard says, "Leon is not afraid to look at his past. My mother can't go there. She is fighting that past, and he is accepting it." The reason for this is that Leon was helped in his plight by a Czech family. "Leon actually had a childhood. My mother had years of flight and terror. She never had an opportunity to learn how to trust, and Leon did." Later, Leon very movingly pays tribute to the father of that family who saved his life and also, he knows now, kept him from falling into a spiritual well of hopeless paranoia.
Howard and Leon talk to many of the local Ukrainians. One elderly woman takes them out to a field where she witnessed as a little girl the slaughter of hundreds of Jews -- not by the Nazis, but by other Ukrainians. She shudders at the memory of it. Howard asks her, "How do you know they were Ukranians?" She looks stunned for a moment and then says, "Because they were speaking Ukrainian."
In one scene, Howard, who looks to be in his forties, and Leon's thirty-something son Peter take time out to compare notes about their experiences as children hearing adults constantly talking about politics, the Holocaust, and the war. Howard says that the older folks were always angry, always shouting about one thing and another, always worrying that someone was still after the Jews. It got to the point where Howard immersed himself in music, playing his piano louder and louder to drown out the disturbing talk. Peter says his father never stopped talking about the past, and that after a while, it all just went in one ear and out the other.
While Howard and Leon are visiting a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Leon decides that he wants to visit Sonia in America because he thinks that seeing him might help her. In a scene that is almost otherworldly, Sonia refuses to recognize Leon when he walks into her room at the nursing home. Howard shows her an old picture of her and Leon sitting with her grandfather, but she refuses to look. She doesn't want to speak to Leon, refers to him as a stranger butting in on her private conversation with her son. She won't even look at Leon, but pays excessively close attention to her can of Diet Coke. Later, outside in the corridor of the nursing home, Leon says, "I am crushed." He can't help feeling so, even though he and Howard had earlier discussed Sonia's possible negative reaction to his visit.
In a change of pace at the end of the film, Howard tells of his visit to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where he listens to other victims of post traumatic stress: children whose homes were destroyed and who were displaced, separated from their friends and family. One girl reveals a chilling fact: No matter where she is, she always keeps a suitcase packed with clothing and other necessities close at hand in case she needs to evacuate. Howard remarks that his mother still has those two brown shopping bags packed and ready to go in her room at the nursing home.
At least nowadays, Howard says, many of these kids are getting help, the kind of help that was not available to his mother and other Holocaust survivors back in the forties and fifties when they sorely could have used it.
What helps the children most is telling their stories, sharing their experiences, learning that others have gone through similar passages of pain. This is something that Sonia never had the chance to do and was never even encouraged to explore. She has always felt deeply alone living with her past, truly a perpetual prisoner of that past who, tragically, can never be set free.