She was a woman on the run…  By

She was a woman on the run…

The sight of German uniforms weakened her knees. She buckled. Her weight collapsed against me, and then, I saw her ashen face. My mother and I were in the Frankfurt  International Airport,  surrounded by uniformed airport security police.  We were on our way to Russia, only months after the breakup of the Soviet Union. 1992. It was her first trip ‘home’ in half a century. At first she didn’t want to go to the country she now called, ‘a land of strangers and graveyards’.

“But what are you scared of?” I asked.

“Myself!” she said.

And then, that combination of  crisp grey uniforms, leather boots, and the sounds of the German tongue, a sound she hadn’t heard for fifty years, it almost took her down. And for an instant, I felt a sick, palpable wave.  Had I gone too far?

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This week in Toronto’s tony “Beach” neighbourhood, that memory of my mother’s panic of seeing a German uniform at the Frankfurt airport, resurfaced for me. Once again, I witnessed the power of symbols to evoke powerful and unexpected emotions.

In preparation for a one-hour special on Remembrance Day for Global TV’s 16X9,(NOV.9 7PM EDT) I directed half a dozen dramatizations using  actors dressed as Gestapo, wearing the swastikas.

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The actors felt queasy, putting on the fake armbands, attached with Velcro (we’re on a budget!) After every take, one young ‘Nazi’ systematically stripped off  the armband, until the camera was rolling again.

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Later he apologized for holding us up a little, confessing that his own Ukrainian grandfather had been in the war camps.

“I really wish I knew more, “ he confided in me, almost wistfully, knowing that I had embarked on a major excavation of the past to learn all I could about my own mother: Agnes Spicer, one of 800,000 Russian women who wore the Soviet Red Army uniform and faced real combat during World War Two.

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My mother carried a bazooka. But there was no time to pull the trigger, she told me once. And left it at that.

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As the sun began to set, we blocked the scene for the documentary: two Nazi soldiers chasing a Jewish couple who’d decided they would rather drown themselves in the canal than be captured and taken to Auschwitz. Once everyone donned their period wardrobe, it was a bit of a waiting game for that sliver of time we call the “magic hour’: not day, not night. The setting was perfect;  the art deco structure, the RC Harris Water Treatment Plant.

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The architectural detail of the 1920’s building was going to double as the ‘storefront’ for a Nazi clubhouse set in occupied Holland, circa 1942. To get the effect we needed, we had a window of maybe 10 minutes before we would lose all the dramatic long shadows and texture.

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A couple walking a dog, ambled by, and then stopped to watch. Just as we were about to roll, they marched into the frame and blocked our shot.

Before I had a chance to say anything, the woman looked at me, her body trembling, before she spit, “My friend’s grandfather was in Auschwitz!”

“Well, so was my mother!” I sputtered, surprised at myself. I’d never said the words out loud.

The stranger clicked her tongue, glared, and without saying another word, walked away.

We lost an opportunity to connect through a shared past.

I turned to my cameraman to roll. But it was too late.

The light had disappeared.

 

 

 

9 Comments

  1. Linda Grist Clarke

    “I hope you plan on supplying Kleenex with your movie .. so many questions I have .. how can you stand the suspense of digging and waiting for answers? You are a fantastic story teller. If your mother could have looked on with a impartial view she would have been so proud of your work.. Keep going, hope you get the backing you need.”

  2. Linda, you are one of 60,000 people who have visited the website in the last four months. The outpouring of a story suppressed for seventy years is a testament I think the fact it still resonates with a contemporary audience. That is the highest praise possible for me as a filmmaker, and I sure hope I get the backing I need too! Thank you..

  3. Gail, you’re a powerhouse of a story-teller on the fast growing network in Canada.. I appreciate your comments, and am proud to include you among my ‘comrades’ for this wholly transparent film-making adventure on the net.

  4. congratulations on your difficult, dedicated endeavor, Roxana.
    your mother would be so proud of you.
    Keep truckin’

  5. Congratulations on your difficult ,dedicated endeavor, Roxana.
    Your mother was always very proud of you, and would be even more so
    now.Keep truckin…

  6. Very much looking forward to the completion of this film – significant on so many levels… Soviet and WWII history, the roles women played, the trials of immigration, post traumatic stress disorder (and how different people coped with it, especially before it had a name), generational secrets/family business (never to be aired in public), understanding our parents as people, not just as parents. Your mother’s story, but in a larger context, one that weaves through many lives, many generations.

  7. Almost one million women fought on the front lines for Stalin. They were the largest fighting force of women ever assembled in history. Mom was one of them. You might be interested to know that the reason there were so many women, was because the men had started to desert in droves. oh yeah…once again, History is written by men. But together, we’re going to change that, at least just a little, with this film. Keep on checking in…we’re gonna make a movie!

  8. Maxine Schmaltz

    Conversation started October 6

    God Bless the Lady Plumber
    This letter is sent by Dale Schmaltz to you Roxana:

    Irena Sendler
    Died: May 12, 2008 (aged 98)
    Warsaw , Poland

    During WWII, Irena, got permission to work in the
    Warsaw ghetto, as a Plumbing/Sewer specialist.
    She had an ulterior motive.
    Irena smuggled Jewish infants out in the bottom of
    The tool box she carried. She also carried a burlap sack in the back of her truck, for larger kids.
    Irena kept a dog in the back that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto.
    The soldiers, of course, wanted nothing to do with the dog and the barking covered the kids/infants noises.
    During her time of doing this, she managed to
    Smuggle out and save 2500 kids/infants.
    Ultimately, she was caught, however, and the Nazi’s broke both of her legs and arms and beat her severely.
    Irena kept a record of the names of all the kids she had smuggled out, in a glass jar that she buried under a tree in
    Her back yard. After the war, she tried to locate any parents that may have survived and tried to reunite the family.
    Most had been gassed. Those kids she helped got placed into foster family homes or adopted.

    In 2007 Irena was up for the Nobel Peace Prize.
    She was not selected.
    Al Gore won, for a slide show on Global Warming.
    Later another politician,
    Barack Obama, won for his work as a community organizer for ACORN.
    In MEMORIAM – 65 YEARS LATER
    I’m doing my small part by forwarding this message. I hope you’ll consider doing the same. It is now more than 65 years since the Second World War in Europe ended.
    This e-mail is being sent as a memorial chain, In memory of the 20 million Russians, 10 million Christians, 6 million Jews, and 1,900 Catholic priests who were murdered, massacred, raped, burned, starved and humiliated!
    Now, more than ever, with Iran , and others, claiming the HOLOCAUST to be ‘a myth’, it’s imperative to make sure the world never forgets, because there are others who would like to do it again.

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