Until Tuesday night (July 13), I wondered whether “Prisoner of Her Past” would mean anything to teenagers. Could kids in 21st Century America really relate to the story of my mother, who is reliving traumas she experienced in Eastern Europe in WWII?
It all seemed a bit remote.
But the youngsters who crowded into the McCormick Tribune Center at Northwestern University, in Evanston, gave me a swift education in their sophistication, sensitivity and wisdom.
We were screening “Prisoner of Her Past” for journalism students at Northwestern University’s National High School Institute, famously known as the “cherubs” program. Bringing the film here was going to be particularly meaningful for me, because I had been a journalism “cherub” myself – in 1971! And the same Northwestern prof who headed the program back then, Roger Boye, had invited me back to show the movie.
What’s more, two close personal friends would be in the audience: Owen Youngman, a former editor of mine at the Tribune who’s now a Medill professor; and Howard Dubin, an ardent supporter of Medill and of our film, who’s also my cousin.
But as the students settled into their seats – talking, laughing, joking – I feared they might feel that “Prisoner of Her Past” belonged to some distant time and place. Once the screening began, their silence seemed to confirm my suspicions.
Yet as the story progressed, they gasped at particular passages, laughed at others, then – at the film’s end – burst into shattering applause.
The house lights went up, and they proceeded to shower me with savvy questions: How did it feel to switch from being a lifelong print journalist to working in film? (Thrilling and scary.) How did I deal with the emotion of telling such a personal story? (With some difficulty.) How did I get people in Poland and Ukraine to open up to me? (They seemed eager to talk.) How did my family respond to the idea of making the film? (With tremendous support.) The questions kept coming for over an hour.
Then something even more startling happened. After the Q-and-A session ended, a large group of kids surged to the front of the room to tell me their own stories, one-on-one. Many wept as they recounted what happened to their grandparents in Europe, and how similar their family narratives were to mine. Others told of relatives who experienced horrors in Japan during World War II … and only reluctantly told their grandchildren the tale.
Over and over, I was struck by the maturity of these students, their awareness of the suffering of their elders and their own heroism in sharing this information with me. Many said they were determined to tell these stories through the course of their careers, to keep the memories alive, to try to help others.
I felt lucky to meet them, talk to them, spend an evening in their presence.
– Howard Reich