Agnes Spicer. She carried a bazooka. Drank vodka. Swore like a trooper. And oh, yeah, my mother wore army boots. At last count, she had six alias’s, three husbands, three kids, three grand-children, and four great grandchildren. And one hell of a story. This is her story, told for the first time, as best I can.
Head of Stadt Archives in Bad Salzuflen, Germany, Arnold Beuke, went on a real archeological dig for me when we met in 2012. Undaunted by boxes of dormant forgotten files, dust, and a rather anxious Canadian journalist/daughter waiting at his desk, he unearthed the game-changer: the first document, a single hand-written line on a list of names, signalling that 1,000 days of my mother’s story were missing. Contrary to what she had led me to believe, she did not spend the bulk of the war years in this Nazi resort town as a slave labourer, but only the last year, arriving in March, 1944. Where was she before that?
Moscow International Memorial Society: recommended for a the French equivalent of a Nobel Peace Prize, this prominent nongovernmental group is dedicated to investigating Stalin’s repression. Sherbakova is an internationally recognized expert in the fate of former Red Army POW’s and slave labourers routinely sent to Soviet ‘filtration camps’ for ‘resocialization’ after the War. She gave me an extensive taped interview, reviewing the details of my mother’s story and breaking the shocking news to me, she was most likely in Auschwitz. This has triggered the next phase of my research: how did my mother evade the gas chambers?
Director of Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial, Wagner curates Germanyʼs first Nazi Forced Labour Exhibit, which opened in Berlin and then travelled to Moscow. I met him on the next stop, in Dortmund, the heart of neo-Nazi movement. Dr. Wagner gave me a six-hour private tour before the official opening, providing rich historical context for a story haunting me since childhood. He also confirmed the likelihood my mother was in Auschwitz. Hearing my mother’s story, the museum staff gave me an additional half day to wander privately among the ghosts who reside in the photographs, diaries, and personal effects of Hitler’s Slaves.
Researching Nazi history of Bad-Salzuflen, he follows a parallel journey to my own, questioning the role of his father as an SS commander for the labour camps in which my mother may have been held. An unexpected story turn I must explore.
Head of communications for the Red Cross International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, conducted a personal search of the archives housing the records of 17 million victims of National Socialism. I discover I am not alone. 70 years after the end of the Second World War, a thousand people a month come to the centre or request traces about their own family members. We had a detailed conversation in which she directed me to a number of archival records of the German SS itself, which I will be exploring in detail during the next phase of development.
In February, 2012, I undertook a research trip to the edge of Siberia to meet ‘the last witness’ to my mother’s story, in the days leading up to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Working with a translator, I interviewed my aunt Nela 88 years old, a decorated Soviet war hero herself as a nurse tending the wounded, starving soldiers from the front. Although elderly, she is articulate, a great raconteur, and telegenic. Her health is wavering, making her on-camera interview a top priority for this summer. Here’s the dramatic moment, I met her for the first time, 20 years ago, through the lens of my camera. It was a reunion that no one in our family, especially my mother, dreamed possible.