I stand on the precipice of a forbidden journey…a project that has haunted me my entire life.  By

I stand on the precipice of a forbidden journey…a project that has haunted me my entire life.

Iridescent azure sky. A blinding sun. Powder white snow hangs in clumps from stands of birch trees. It’s a brilliant, starched day. Minus 50 degrees. It’s so cold, spit freezes before it hits the ground. Not that I’m testing it. My pals back home are sipping cocktails at the beach. Not me. I stand on the edge of Siberia.

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I’ve stepped through the looking glass on a forbidden journey. A journey into the heart of Evil. I’ve come to Russia in search of my mother. The woman I never knew. On a journey into the past that defies her last lucid words to me from her death bed in Calgary.

“Don’t write it.”

As a kid in Saskatchewan, I never knew her real name. No one did. Not even my father. Only when I stood before the century old wooden door of her Russian family log house, did I actually learn her real name. “Butorina”. It is engraved by hand in Cyrillic above the door knob.

It doesn’t match the name on my birth certificate.

Ryan Knight films Traitor's Daughter Scene by the ruins of the house my mother was born.

She was a woman on the run. At last count, she had six alias’s.

“Goddam it Roxana! I knew how to lie my way out of Europe!” she declared in a rare candid moment.

No one in our family knew that at the height of the war, she had gone missing for a thousand days. She never spoke of it. It was forbidden to ask. 

Her secrets became my obsession, taking me to Russia nine times, as well as Poland, Germany, and the ghost-towns of Saskatchewan. She was right about one thing. She did cover her tracks well. But I can not let the story go. Or rather, this story will not let me go.

This duel between mother and daughter began almost half  a century ago.

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In the tiny village of Netherhill, Saskatchewan, my mother’s cooking at the roadside diner, “Agnes’ Dinette” is legendary (along with the mouse who lives in the cash-register). And so is the private iron curtain she wraps herself in.  Her story belongs to her, and no one else. Except at midnight, on those rare nights, she called, her “Russian Nights”.  

Prairie winds howl, and the sounds of the Russian Red Army choir lure the ten-year old down the stairs as her Russian mother takes another shot of vodka. Repressed memories come gurgling to the surface.  Fragments of stories. A glimpse into terror with an audience of one.  That’s me.

I am spellbound. I am getting a coveted piece of the puzzle tonight. The ex-Russian Red Army soldier spills secrets, confident that by morning, the prairie winds will scour away the night. I discover, she was captured by the Nazis. Taken into slavery. She witnessed atrocities. Her best friend hanged. She risked her life to steal food for another POW. She swam in the Rhine, dodging landmines. She learned how to use a knife. Unknown to her, the ten year old is taking notes. Preserving details never intended to outlast the night itself.

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Fifty years later, in a Calgary palliative care centre. Once again, mother and daughter are united by Russian music, nostalgia, and longing. So much has changed and yet so much stays the same. Even now, almost half a century later, the daughter can not bring herself to look at the numbered tattoo on her mother’s forearm. It is a lifelong habit to avert the gaze. A family taboo from childhood. It turns out to be the most important clue to the mystery of the missing thousand days of her mother’s life.  But the daughter will not discover that, until much too late to ask the only witness. This film is the search for intimacy by a ten-year old girl in Saskatchewan, seeking the mother she never knew.  

 “The Traitor’s Daughter” is a universal story of longing created by a lifetime of secrets.

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The price for seeking and discovering the ‘truth,’ will be peeled back in stages as the film progresses. In that sense, it is a psychological drama, but it is also a detective story that plays out against an epic background and the darkest days of the last century.

Two voices thread together a narrative, transporting viewers into Nazi prison camps and Hitler’s archives, from Cold War Saskatchewan to Putin’s Russia where official and family secrets meld even today. One voice is that of my mother: recorded in sporadic interviews and taped scenes over two decades: from the Ural Mountains in 1992, to Saskatchewan and Alberta and her last birthday in 2006. The other voice is mine, a career journalist who sits on a story I have yet to break. Fearful of what I might discover yet determined to finally finish a life-long quest.

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You will hear from a supporting cast of ‘detectives’ along the way. They are a blue-chip group of select historians, Russian and German, as they expertly retrace one woman’s wartime journey into the heart of Evil. At the end of the war, Agnes is liberated by the Regina Rifles of Canada. Falling in love with one of the Canadian liberators, she becomes Canada’s only war-bride from Russia.  How did she survive when millions did not? It is a question I fear the answer.

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Am I going to mess with a sentimental, carefully guarded matriarchal portrait? She was no June Cleaver, after all.  Fierce. Protective. Like a Russian Mother Bear, all five feet of her.  A piercing tongue and wit unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met. Her old prairie pals still remember the sumptuous meals at her café on the Number Seven highway in Saskatchewan. Local farmers laugh their asses off when they describe how she could throw a handful of kitchen knives into a perfect pattern on the wall. But only for a moment.  Her oldest confidante hints that she knows something dark and sinister about those wartime skills with a knife, but she is torn.

Does the death of my mother release her from the burden of keeping her secrets?

As the daughter, the search for the missing thousand days of my mother’s wartime story is Pandora’s box, too late to shut. I feel the personal risk every step of the way. My family is watching me. I stand poised to forever change the picture of a beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

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In the heart of what was the epicenter of Nazi Germany in the 1940’s, I travel to a former SS barracks that today houses Hitler’s once-secret archives: the personal records, photographs, even wallets and glasses of 17.5 million Nazi victims. Every month, a-thousand people make a pilgrimage here, in search of answers, filled with equal parts, longing and dread, about what they may discover. I am one of them. Seventy years after the war, we are children of the silent generation who never spoke of their secrets. We seek the stories of our parents in acres of documents preserved by the International Red Cross in Bad Arolsen. For the first time, I realize I am not alone. 

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Every detective story has clues. The film weaves together a narrative based on clues that begin with those midnight anecdotes from Netherhill, Saskatchewan. On the night my mother confided that she worked as a slave on a German farm, for the ‘Vollands’, she led me to believe she spent most of the war milking cows, and hitching a ride from the fields every night on the back of one cow she named “Emma”. When Emma slipped into a water-filled ditch and drowned, Mom said, she lost her best friend. It was the only time I ever saw my mother cry. That’s a moment a child never forgets.

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I will once again return to the German town of Bad Salzuflen where I first met the Vollands, 25 years ago. I met the grandson on the actual farm where my mother had worked as a slave. And he told me an extraordinary story. At the end of the war, as the Russian Red Army was marching across Germany rounding up its former POW’s, his German grandparents hid Mom in their attic for two weeks. (Yes, the same German couple who beat her and punished her by putting her in box too small to stand or sit, for three days.)

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As a former Soviet POW working for Germans, even as a slave, she would have been taken back to Russia and tried as a German ‘collaborator’. (2 million Soviet POW’s landed up in the gulags when they went back to Russia).

“That could have been you, Mom.” I say, during one of our rare taped interviews.

“Yes, it could have been.” She pauses, “It could have been.”

But in a world turned upside down, her German ‘slave-owners’ turn out to be her saviors in the end. In war, nothing is black and white. Everything is nuanced. 

As for spending the war, riding a cow named Emma? That turns out to be a silkscreen, masking the whole story. On the cobblestone streets of the medieval town of Bad Salzuflen, I first discovered that my mother had ‘bulk erased’ a-thousand days of her story. 

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The head archivist, Dr. Arnold Beuke, unearthed my mother’s actual Nazi work records. To see her name, hand-written on a single line of foolscap, as part of a list of slave labourers is a devastating moment. It is a physical tangible piece of evidence that infuses real flesh and blood and tears into a story that was, until that moment, almost ethereal. It is one thing to know your mom was a ‘slave’. But to see the date, the signature, the place of birth on a registration form. I start to get an understanding of why she kept so much hidden from me. The impact is enormous.

The Nazi work document, scant as it is in detail, triggers the search for the missing thousand days. It is only the beginning of a dangerous psychological odyssey in unearthing the secrets of the grave. 

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Beuke’s new clues point me to Lithuania, and a POW camp called Stalig 316. A place my mother never spoke of. But it is in Moscow, I get the most chilling news of all. In the dimly lit offices of the Memorial Society, I discover the significance of my mother’s numbered tattoo on her forearm. I thought all prisonners  of war had them. But, Dr. Irina Shcherbakova breaks the news. Only in Auschwitz. It was the only Nazi Camp that ever tattooed prisoners.  Irrefutable evidence.

How could my mother have kept that secret? What is it that she doesn’t want me to know?  Assisted again by the International Red Cross Tracing Service and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, I will travel to Auschwitz, Poland.  During our midnight sessions, Mom once remarked that her ability to speak German saved her life. I wonder if I will discover what she really meant amidst the Nazi files still preserved from the greatest killing field of the 20th century.

In Russia, on the very street where my mother grew up before the war, one of her original old neighbours adds to the intrigue. “Lucy” declares the Germans took Mom to Ravensbruck, the only Nazi concentration camp for women. It is a camp notorious for medical experiments on female prisonners during the War. That is a completely unexpected revelation from my summer shoot in 2013.

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Every lead provides an answer and yet another question.  Such is the nature of an investigation into a story that spans three generations, two continents, and a handful of surviving witnesses.Finally, in Chusovoy, in the Ural Mountains, I speak with the last surviving bloodline to my mother’s story as a young Soviet soldier. Aunt Ninel is named for Lenin spelled backwards, as was the fashion among the first new Citizens of the Socialist Paradise. Today, she is 90 years old, and a reluctant witness. During the weeklong  shoot this summer , another family drama takes centre stage, as I encounter unexpected resistance from my relatives in excavating the past. Even my cousin, Lena, who, like me, is one generation removed from the War, warns me off the story, invoking the ghost of my mother. And questioning the morality of my quest to exhume the secrets of the dead.

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 There is of course a prodigious amount of material out there about World War Two. Hollywood is back at it again, (with George Clooney’s Monument’s Men slated for 2014) but even Tom Hank’s “Band of Brothers” got some of the facts wrong.  Only this summer, in speaking to a Toronto high school social studies teacher about this film project, she turned to me and asked, “What’s Auschwitz?” I have had friends tell me, frankly, they are sick of the “Holocaust.” My Jewish friends are particularly apologetic, but they say they can’t watch another frame.

But my story is not about the atrocities of War. I am entranced by the blurred lines between victim and perpetrator and the ambiguities of heroism and cowardice. As my mother once declared, in her own imitable way, 

“Nothing went according to the heroic f*** plan!”

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What is the price of survival, especially as it transcends generations. In her efforts to protect me from the truth, my Mother created another kind of psychological trauma for me. And I wonder, even today, how much of my mother’s trauma lives on in my own veins?

This feature length documentary puts a human face on an epic story that claimed the lives of 70 million people.  It is only one face, one story, and one solitary pilgrimage into the very essence of Evil.

I am not a historian. I am only  The Traitor’s Daughter.

 

7 Comments

  1. Dorothy Buchanan Aitken

    WOW – Roxana – that is such powerful writing….it made me cry at times. Your Mom was an amazing woman. I look forward to the finished film and I hope with all my heart that you find the peace you seek within yourself.
    I wish you enough

    1. Keep watching the blog! I am starting to shoot this weekend in Saskatchewan, and really hope I will be able to live up to the promise of this story!

  2. Dianne Delday Stinka

    Your story about your discoveries and your questioning of your right to do this are heartbreaking. I hope you discover the answers for which you have longed for the last 4 decades, and I hope they don’t break your heart. You are a brave woman, Roxana. Your writing causes me to hold me breath as I am reading, and I eagerly anticipate the next installment.

  3. Cheryl D Banks

    A daughter often feels guilt and remorse when her mother dies, whether or not she should. You have so much more to deal with because your mother told you not to write about her. However, it is such a gripping story, both for you to traverse and for your readers and supporters to follow, that it must be told. It is personal, but it is history and it will shed a bit more light on the dark, dark years of the last century. You seem to be a strong person, having faced some of the information you have come to so far. I trust your strength and knowing you have many people following your every step will help get you through the tough parts that lie ahead.

  4. Lois Walper Ryder

    This story is so breathtaking, the more I read, I find myself searching more information to find out what this amazing woman, your mother went through. It brings tears to my eyes, I cant even imagine how any body could treat these living human beings with such cruelty. I first met your Mom when I was in grade 7 attending the Elizabeth school, she came to my social class to give a talk on being in the concentration camp. Later after being married, I worked for her when she owned the Homesteader in Kindersley. She was truly a survivor and never gave up. I can understand you wanting to know your mothers past, the more you learn the more you know her and you can put closure to all of this .I pray the Lord will give you strength and put peace in your heart. Hugs! (I will be following and praying for you)

    1. WE have just completed our first shoot in Saskatchewan, where I completed time sensitive interviews and filmed the landscape that informs so much of the film. Thank you for your encouragement, and I’m fascinated by your comments about your own memories. I’d like to call you and chat in person about those school lectures, because she never spoke of her life in the camps in front of her own children. How I wish I had been in your class….

  5. Donna Thomson

    Your story about your mother is very touching and I commend you for telling it and wish you well in all your endeavours.
    My family enjoyed many meals in the Homesteader restaurant. It is hard to imagine the suffering that she endured.

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