By Katrina Spinner-Wilson, lifestyles editor
Thursday, October 2, 2014
Howard Reich grew up in Illinois knowing almost nothing about his mother’s childhood.
“When I compare notes with my sister, we can only think of about three sentences that my mother told the both of us through our entire lives of growing up with her,” said Reich.
Although he knew both his parents were Holocaust survivors, he felt ignorant of the subject and particularly unaware of what his mother, Sonia Reich, experienced as a young girl in Dubno, Poland, now part of Ukraine.
Reich is educating people with his memoir and documentary by traveling places such as museums, arts centers and schools. From Oct. 5-8, he will make his first visit to Virginia Tech, which he describes as one of the most important stops to him due to the tragic events that transpired on April 16, 2007.
Reich began discovering his mother’s past rather unexpectedly when, one night in February of 2001, she ran out of her home. In that moment and years to follow, Reich realized she was running from her horrible experiences as a child, felt vividly in her mind.
“I suddenly, really for the first time, had to face what this unspoken story in my family was,” Reich said. “I was just confronted with it. I was trying to help my mother and figure out what was going on.”
It took one year until doctors finally decided to diagnose Reich’s mother with late-onset PTSD, an illness that Reich didn’t know was capable of affecting civilians whose lives are threatened in tragedies such as war, genocide or hurricane.
Someone with late-onset PTSD can suffer a trauma, but the worst symptoms may not appear for months, years or decades later.
“So our goal with this story is not only to tell my mother’s story, but for people to understand just because you’re an old person and you’re having mental problems does not automatically mean you have Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia,” Reich said. “It might be post-traumatic stress disorder or late-onset PTSD, as is my mother’s case and we’re hoping this can help enlighten and educate people.”
The tragedy at Virginia Tech on April 16 serves as a major talking point for Reich’s visit.
“Everyone in America was affected by that. Anyone who pays attention,” Reich said. “So definitely I will acknowledge it and I don’t presume to know enough about it and I know I’ll probably learn a lot while I’m there.”
Stephanie Hofer, a German professor in the Department of Foreign Language and Literatures, lost her husband Jamie Bishop, also a professor, in the 2007 tragedy .
“After I lost my husband on April 16, 2007, I started to read a lot of books, memoirs in particular,” said Hofer. “I was very much interested in real life stories of people who experienced trauma and it was for me a way to mourn the lives lost on April 16, but also find out more about being traumatized — what it means — because I was severely traumatized.”
Hofer discovered Reich’s memoir through an Amazon search and, as a German, became particularly interested in the title since Reich is a German word.
Besides reading the memoir, Hofer watched the documentary and visited Reich’s webpage, where she found out that Reich visits schools and universities. Since Virginia Tech and its community has experienced trauma, Hofer thought this would be an important topic to discuss on campus.
In particular, Hofer expresses interest in learning more from Reich’s documentary, where he discusses New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He explains how the community suffers PTSD, drawing the connection to Virginia Tech and April 16.
Reich incorporates New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina into his documentary because as a jazz critic for the Chicago Tribune, he was sent to report the cultural after-effects in the city. He discovered that New Orleans was traumatized and suffering from what seemed like PTSD and included this in his documentary to show audiences that PTSD does not just stem from wars and genocides.
“It would show how awareness of this subject — of this illness — could help people,” Reich said. “We’re not trying to make any kind of comparison between the two traumas. Only to show if you’re traumatized, you need help.”
Inspiration to write about his mother came from his background as a reporter, as he was accustomed to making observations and taking notes.
“She was saying all these incredible things about how there’s a yellow Star of David on her clothes and people were trying to kill her,” Reich said.
Interested in learning more, Reich traveled to Dubno in 2003, his mother’s birthplace, that he knew very little about.
Reich learned that when his mother was a child she was one of the of the 12,000 Jews who lived there; less than 100, his mother included, survived.
“It’s a dying little village,” Reich said. “But what amazed me was that all the clues to that story were still there waiting to be told, waiting to be found.”
This trip was especially important — life altering as Reich describes — because he was able to see the town and interact with unknown relatives and residents who could give him more information about the town’s turbulent past.
During his visit, Reich visited the house his mother grew up in, saw where Jews were executed during the Holocaust and read documents that gave him a better understanding of what his mother and millions of other Jews endured.
“And I found out, which I didn’t know — that my mother really showed incredible heroism at age 10 and 11 and through about age 15, spending those years running and hiding and trying to live — trying to find a way to live while the whole world was literally trying to kill her,” Reich said. “I thought that showed incredible heroism and courage and faith in life.”
Reich’s visit in 2003 allowed him to finally connect the pieces and understand what his mother was running from and continues to run from today.
“So it’s as if I knew almost nothing about my mother before that trip. And now, and since that trip, and through all my research, I’ve learned a great deal,” Reich said. “And in a way I feel fortunate to have found out the story as tragic as it is. “
Reich’s story of his mother emerged in 2003 as a large newspaper article in the Chicago Tribune and at that point, Reich was unaware what kind of reactions — if any — would develop in response.
“And the day that article ran I started getting emails from around the world from Mexico, Germany and France. It just circled the globe instantly,” Reich said. “There was so much interest in it that people started telling me you should expand it into a book, you should make it into a film and so on.”
According to Reich, once publishers began contacting him, it felt like second nature since he has immense experience with writing and a vast amount of information to tell his family’s story.
“It was something…it was as if this whole subject had been bottled up by me and my family for all these years and decades,” Reich said. “And now it was kind of exploded and I needed a book — a full length book in which to tell the story. I needed a film in which to tell the story.”
Released in 2010, Reich’s documentary “Prisoner of Her Past” was produced by a Chicago documentary company known as Kartemquim, who arranged for PBS to broadcast the film and distribute it nationally.
“I’m excited about that because that meant that a story that was known very well, but only in Chicago, started to be seen across the country and in Canada and other countries,” Reich said.
Although the memoir has been published and the documentary has been produced, Reich says he continues to update the story through public speaking.
“You can’t plan out life — that’s something that I’ve learned. You make plans but other things happen. But at the same time I feel gratitude that I’ve been able to discover this story and as the saying goes, I feel sadder but wiser,” Reich said. “I’m sorry for what happened. I feel terrible for what my parents and so many million suffered, but I’m still glad I know because that’s better than ignorance…”