The Siberian dumplings were still steaming in the plate, swimming in an unself-conscious pool of melted butter and sour cream, the tang of vinegar still sharp on my tongue. Ahhh…the taste of childhood in rural Saskatchewan, circa 1965. My Russian mother would pick wild dill from the ditches on either side of the ditches in front of our house on the highway.
The pelmeni (not be confused with pyrogies or any of those other doughy East European pretenders) were a tradition on Highway Number Seven at Christmas time. She handcrafted each bite-size offering with a deft mechanical precision, churning out two or three hundred in an afternoon. But I shamelessly resurrected the tradition in Toronto one summer’s evening to set the stage for what I hoped would be the unraveling of my mother’s secrets at the hands of the Nazis: once and for all, laid bare in front of an unmanned video camera. At first, she played along, stepping over the lighting cables as though they were part of the normal living room décor in Toronto. She pretended not to see the towering light stand or the shotgun mike propped up on the table, next to the salt and pepper. At least, for a while….
“Inquisitor!” “Worse than the Gestapo!” “Up to your tricks again?” But we both knew I would not, could not let the story go. Or, more to the point, it will not let me go. Five years after my mother’s death, am I now free to finally unearth the secrets she hid behind her private iron curtain?
Last summer deep in Russia’s eastern Ural mountains, I got a chilling new clue from the daughter of my mom’s actual neighbour who still lives in the old city of Chusovoy, on the same street where my mother grew up before the Nazis changed all that. “Lucy” reported confidently, that the Germans had taken Mom to Ravensbruck, the only Nazi concentration camp for women in Germany. The source: her childhood friend-my own cousin who now lives in Bishkek, in Central Asia, on the rooftop of the world. Cousin Vika and Lucy were school chums in Chusovoy. (My other Russian cousin, Lena, confessed that she had never heard of this notorious camp known for medical experiments on women. My 90 year old Aunt Nela could not help me either, reminding me, that Mom never spoke to anyone about what happened to her during the War.)
When I visited the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, I was arrested by this woman’s inmate uniform from Ravensbruck, preserved behind a glass wall. Did my mother wear one? I wanted to break the glass and feel the texture in my own hands. As strange as it may seem in the retelling, I could never wear striped pyjamas when I used to visit my mom as a young adult. Intuitively, I was afraid of triggering powerful memories she was determined to submerge. Yet, I can not shake my own obsession to exhume those deeply held secrets, in defiance of her last words to me.
Does Vika, a woman whose own career as a cosmonaut scientist depended on her ability to keep secrets, now hold the key to the next important clue in the missing thousand days of my mother’s life at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War?
This fall, I intend to return to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan with a camera crew to follow this lead, unearthed during those incredible 10 days in Russia in August.
A jury of anonymous story-tellers (or story-lovers) toiling away in an uptown Toronto high-rise government building have given The Traitor’s Daughter a unanimous vote of confidence. “A story that must be told,” they wrote in awarding me development money this spring. (Thank you, Martin Harbury and your team from the Ontario Media Development Corporation!) What a vote of confidence!
Now, I confront the blank page, tasked with writing a feature length film treatment that will become the blueprint for the actual film shoot later this year. I’ve applied for funding from the Germans to fire up the cameras in the fall in Europe. I hope my mother is not rolling over in her grave! This morning, at my BC mountain ‘writer’s garret’ (courtesy of my fabulous brother, Harold), flanked by my two jet lagged shar pei’s and surrounded by my mother’s furniture, her dishes, books, and photographs, I feel her ghost exhorting me, “…it’s time to shit or get off the pot.”