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No Escape from the Past

Journalist discovers that his mother's paranoia is rooted in her horrific memories of surviving the Holocaust in a small Polish town.


by Howard Reich

The phone rang around midnight, shattering my sleep, but the worst was yet to come.

My sister, her voice quavering on the other end of the phone, conveyed devastating news.

“Mom went running out of the house tonight,” she said. “Running on the streets.

“The police got her, and she’s safe now,” my sister continued. “What are we going to do?”

Half asleep, I couldn’t fully comprehend what was happening on that freezing night in February 2001. Even in the days and weeks ahead, I didn’t understand why my mother had fled, refusing to return to her home in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago. In hospital emergency rooms and psychiatric wards, she insisted that someone was trying to kill her — to “put a bullet in my head,” as she told anyone who would listen.

Yet aside from her insistence that she was in mortal danger, my mother seemed alert and aware. She recognized me; she knew every detail imaginable about her family; she spoke knowledgeably about all the latest news events. Moreover, she still absorbed new information like a sponge, learning the names and titles of every doctor, nurse and certified nurse’s aide attempting to treat her. This didn’t seem to me like Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia.

Indeed, it wasn’t. Unfortunately, the psychiatrists who treated my mother at the beginning of this crisis diagnosed her poorly, slapping her with the generic “delusional disorder” label without getting to the heart of her problem. Meanwhile, my mother became increasingly paranoid, refusing to take any of the anti-psychotic medications prescribed for her and preventing any physician from getting near enough to examine her.

Eventually she simply hid in her room in the nursing home where my sister and I had to place her for her own safety.

It took fully a year until I found a doctor who was able to diagnose my mother’s bizarre and tragic condition: post-traumatic stress disorder, its symptoms emerging more than 60 years after my mother’s trauma! Specifically, she has late-onset PTSD, a form of the illness little known even to the medical community, as my experience in attempting to have her properly diagnosed showed.

I had realized, of course, that my mother — like all the elders in my extended family — was a Holocaust survivor. But she had said almost nothing about her past to me or my sister when we were growing up (or anytime after). I remembered only a single phrase she had uttered, saying that as a child she had been “running, running, I didn’t know where I was running.”

Because my mother now refused all treatment, I eventually had to accept the sad fact that there was nothing I could do to help her, except to make sure that she was safe and comfortable in the nursing home. So I decided to do what I always did when I ran out of options: I wrote.

As a longtime arts critic for the Chicago Tribune, I decided to apply my journalistic skills to unearthing my mother’s hidden past, to find out — as best I could — exactly what happened to my mother in her childhood, what precisely she was running from.

I was startled by what I learned in Dubno, the tiny town (now in Ukraine) where my mother had begun her childhood. Documents and eyewitness testimony that I obtained in Dubno showed that from the day the Nazis invaded, in June 1941, mass executions bloodied the streets and valleys and ravines of Dubno. Of the nearly 12,000 Jews who lived in Dubno before the war, less than 100 are believed to have survived — my mother was one of them. By locating relatives I hadn’t known existed, I learned that my mother had spent most of the war running and hiding, begging for food, toiling on farms, sleeping in the snow.

I was dumbfounded by this information, discovering — deep into my middle age — my mother’s heroism in surviving against such extraordinary odds, and in enduring her memories for as long as she did.

I found some relief in publishing this story in the Tribune in 2003 and more recently in a book, and in retracing these events for a documentary film that’s currently in production.

My mother lives in the nursing home to this day, still haunted by her past, and I still work to tell her story. The world needs to know what can happen to children who survive severe trauma and grow up but, of course, never really escape their pasts.

Howard Reich (Mu77) is the Chicago Tribune's arts critic and author of The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir (PublicAffairs, 2006).

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