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