Losing-touch-with-reality TV: Documentary shows impact of Holocaust on moms sanity

When writer William Faulkner famously said that the past “isn’t even past,” he could have been talking about Sonia Reich.

A Polish-born Holocaust survivor, Reich made it to America, married and had a family. But late in life, her past caught up with her, as she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder severe enough to make her lose touch with reality.

Her story is captured in a gripping 2010 documentary “Prisoner of Her Past.” To commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, KQED Channel 9 will air the film at 11 p.m. Sunday, May 1, following a 10 p.m. showing of the Shoah documentary, “Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers.”

KQED will air “Prisoner of Her Past” four other times during the first week of May, and it also will be screened May 10 at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch.

The one-hour documentary was written and narrated by Reich’s son, Howard Reich, a jazz critic for the Chicago Tribune. It’s a forensic detective story, undertaken by Reich on behalf of his mother, a victim of history’s greatest crime. Though unsatisfying in some ways, the film communicates a powerful message about Holocaust survival and its discontents.

Howard Reich

Howard’s search for the truth begins about 10 years ago, when his elderly mother runs out of her Skokie, Ill., home one night, crying hysterically that someone wanted to put “a bullet in her head.”

Over the years, his mother had told him next to nothing about her traumatic past –– how her family died in the Holocaust, while she survived by escaping the ghetto to fend for herself. But for Sonia, widowed and living in a senior residence, it becomes clear that her “past is back,” as her son puts it.

The film introduces Sonia Reich, a cocky old bird who crumbles up slices of pumpernickel bread and has a sharp tongue for everyone she meets. A psychiatrist says Sonia is experiencing “late-onset PTSD with bells and whistles.”

With that, her son decides to delve into Sonia’s past, meeting with a great-aunt who knew the young Sonia but who cannot speak about the Holocaust. He meets a New York cousin who took Sonia in as a young refugee, and remembers the girl as “a very unapproachable child, and she had every reason to be.”

The film really takes off when the scene shifts to the muddy backwaters of Poland and Ukraine, where Sonia grew up with her cousin, Leon, now a courtly old man who confronts his past as determinedly as Sonia avoids hers.

Leon takes Howard on a tour of his and Sonia’s hometown of Dubno (now part of Ukraine), where 12,000 Jews died at the hands of Ukrainian Nazi sympathizers. He visits the village where a Czech farmer hid him throughout much of the war, and the house from which Sonia departed as a child, never to see her family again.

The climax comes when Howard takes Leon to visit Sonia after a 60-year absence, hoping Leon’s calm presence might shock Sonia into a catharsis of memory and reconciliation.

Without giving away too much, let’s just say Sonia clings to her PTSD the way Kate Winslet clung to flotsam after the Titanic went down.

While the film never fully explains Sonia’s odd behavior, we do learn how Howard coped growing up in a family of Holocaust survivors. They were, he says, “understandably mad all the time. Everything was a conspiracy to kill Jews.” He tuned it out, literally, by playing piano all day (a hobby that led to his passion for jazz and his current job).

The film has a bit of a hurry-up finale, rushing off to post-Katrina New Orleans to meet black teens battling their own version of PTSD. Howard notes that like his mother, some of the traumatized teens keep a packed suitcase by the door at all times.

After that, for the only time in the film, we see Sonia appearing “normal,” as she meets with her young grandchildren.

She’s still prickly, but she does not seem as brutalized by her past.

Viewers accustomed to the quick wrap-ups of American-styled TV drama will feel some disappointment in “Prisoner of Her Past.” There’s no hugging, no learning for Sonia Reich.

Yet no one and nothing can take away the most salient fact: she survived.

As Howard Reich says at the film’s end, as his mother slowly trudges down the hall of her assisted-living center: Despite everything, Sonia Reich was a mother, a grandmother and “in her own way, still in charge.”

“Prisoner of Her Past” airs five times on KQED Channel 9 and KQED World from May 1 to 7. For times, visit www.kqed.org. Also screens 5:45 p.m. May 10 in the S.F. Library’s Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin St., S.F. Free. Information: www.sfpl.org.


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.