The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich

A Son's Memoir


By Howard Reich

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On the evening of February 15, 2001, Sonia Reich, Howard Reich’s mother, packed some clothes into two brown shopping bags, put on her gray winter coat, locked the door to her home in Skokie, Illinois and fled. Someone was trying to kill her, “to put a bullet in my head,” Sonia told anyone who would listen. Polish and Jewish, Sonia Reich had survived the Holocaust by staying always on the run. She and Howard’s father, Robert, also a Holocaust survivor, had fled to America, moved to Chicago, and raised their young son to tell no one that they were Jewish. It was only after moving to Skokie, a town filled with Holocaust survivors, that his family would live as Jews. Still, his parents told Howard almost nothing about their past. The First and Final Nightmare is Reich’s moving and bittersweet memoir of growing up in Skokie, discovering an odd and personal American freedom in jazz, and his riveting, revealing investigation into his family’s past and the nature of his mother’s illness, called late-onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a poignant story of a mother and a son, a haunted past, and the irony of what may happen when that often repeated admonition to “never forget” becomes a curse.





Copyright © 2006 by Howard Reich.


Published in the United States by PublicAffairs,
a member of the Perseus Books Group.


Photos on pages 1–4 are courtesy of the author.
Photos on pages 5–8 are Chicago Tribune photos by Zbigniew Bzdak.
Reprinted with permission of the Chicago Tribune. © Chicago Tribune.


All rights reserved.

Printed in the United States of America.


No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address PublicAffairs, 250 West 57th Street, Suite 1321, New York, NY 10107. PublicAffairs books are available at special discounts for bulk purchases in the U.S. by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact the Special Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 11 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142, call (617) 252-5298, or email


Book Design by Trish Wilkinson

Set in 12-point Goudy by the Perseus Books Group


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Reich, Howard.

The first and final nightmare of Sonia Reich : a son’s memoir / Howard Reich.—1st ed.

p.   cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.


ISBN: 978-0-7867-3614-0 (e-book)


1. Reich, Sonia—Mental health. 2. Post-traumatic stress disorder—Patients—Biography. 3. Holocaust survivors. 4. Jews—Illinois—Skokie. 5. Skokie (Ill.)—Biography. I. Title.

RC552.P67R45 2006




First Edition


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1





For Robbie, Aaron, and Amanda AbramovitzSonia’s future

And for Pam Becker, my wife and dearest friend








CHAPTER 1 Leaving Germantown

CHAPTER 2 Skokie Blues

CHAPTER 3 Swing Time

CHAPTER4 The Past Returns


CHAPTER 5 Chasing the Story

CHAPTER 6 A Glimpse Into the Dark

CHAPTER 7 What Happened in Dubno

CHAPTER 8 Heading Home

Epilogue: February 15, 2006

Appendix  A Guide to Resources


About the Author







This book would not have been possible without the encouragement of uncounted colleagues and friends.

I owe a great debt to Ann Marie Lipinski, James O’Shea, Robert Blau, George Papajohn, Robin Daughtridge, Stacy Sweat, Michael Miner, Bill Parker, Jill Boba, and Mark Hinojosa, Chicago Tribune editors who helped shape the newspaper story—“Prisoner of Her Past”—that inspired this book.

I feel privileged to have worked on this project, and others, with Tribune photographer Zbigniew Bzdak, a poet of the camera if ever there were one. My translator, Askold Yere­min, helped make our journey into Ukraine a revelation. I deeply appreciate the candor and helpfulness of the people of the city of Dubno, who generously shared their dark stories and astonishing documents.

Pam Becker, my wife, recognized the depth of my mother’s crisis long before I did and guided me through it. My sister Barb Reich-Abramovitz, her husband Lou Abramovitz, and their children Robbie, Aaron, and Amanda Abramovitz were more comforting to me than they ever will know.

I thank Peter Osnos of PublicAffairs, who immediately saw the universal dimensions of this story; David Patterson, who proved a keenly astute editor and deeply empathetic colleague; Melissa Raymond, who lavished great energy, skill, and care on the production of this book; and Jennifer Joel, my agent at ICM, who advised me with wisdom, optimism, and grace. Drs. Haim Dasberg, David Rosenberg, and Henry Krystal helped me enormously, explaining the psychic after-effects of childhood trauma.

These memoirs chronicle my early years of growing up with my family as I remember them. All the facts and names are real, with the exception of a few minor figures whose names have been changed (specifically Sarah, Don, Julia, Eva, and Lara).

Finally, I thank my great-aunt Irene Tannen and my Warsaw cousin Leon Slominski. Without them, I never could have discovered my mother’s story.Preface
February 15, 2001

The phone went off like an alarm, shattering a deep sleep, and even after I fumbled to pull the handset to my ear, I felt as if I were in a dream.

“Mom went running out of the house tonight,” my sister said. “Running on the streets, and the police picked her up and brought her to Aunt Sarah’s house.”


“The police got her, and she’s safe now. What are we going to do?”

Since this had to be a nightmare, there was only one thing to do—hang up the phone and slip back into the comfort of sleep.

The next morning, during breakfast, I remembered the phantom conversation and wondered if it could have been real. The very notion that my mother, at age sixty-nine, would flee her house after dark on a frozen Chicago night and run the streets until she was grabbed by the police should have been too absurd to entertain—unless someone was trying to kill her, or she believed someone was. She was a widow who had spent the years since my father’s death virtually hiding in the tiny house where I grew up. How did a woman who constantly checked, double-checked, and triple-checked the dead bolts on the doors of her home end up in the back seat of a squad car?

It took one phone call to my Aunt Sarah to discover that my mother indeed had been hurrying through the streets the night before, that the midnight phone call from my sister was real. Moreover, the next evening, back in her own home, my mother began running the streets again, leading the police to pursue her anew.

It would take a year to figure out why. In the interim, my mother revolved through hospital emergency rooms and psychiatric wards, confounding doctors who quickly realized that she was fully alert and aware, even as she regularly insisted—in the thick Eastern European accent she never lost—that someone was promising to “put a bullet in my head.”

In the ER, she nimbly answered all the doctors’ questions: What’s your name? Sonia Reich. Where are you now? Skokie, Illinois. Who’s the president of the United States? George Bush, the second one. What’s more, she quickly mastered the identities of all the attending physicians and nurses, calling each by name as if she had known them for years. She could rattle off the birth dates of her children and grandchildren, list the phone numbers of the various taxicab services she used, even detail the prices of dozens of items she bought at the grocery store and how much they used to cost in the late 1940s, when she first came to America, after the war.

Yet she also described in detail the threats that the imaginary killers were making. And she insisted that she would not be alive much longer unless the killers were stopped, especially, she said, since no one seemed to be doing anything to help.





Leaving Germantown

IT SEEMED THE WHOLE WORLD WAS CROWDED INTO MY parents’ tiny bakery on Christmas Eve, 1958, customers competing for cookies shaped like Santa Claus, pastries resembling angels in flight, and sheet cakes slathered with images of reindeer and mistletoe. As patrons jostled for position, slowly inching toward the counter, they ogled one fantastic concoction after another, asking in German for a chocolate-covered Bavarian torte or a towering Black Forest cake. Occasionally, the customers nearly toppled the store’s Christmas tree.

For the voluble German patrons who packed our bakery, the spectacle must have recalled scenes back in Berlin or Munich, a tantalizing re-creation of the Old Country wedged into Chicago’s most robust German neighborhood, more than a decade after the end of the war. Roughly 200,000 Germans flourished in this part of town, on Chicago’s North Side, not far from Lake Michigan, and sometimes it seemed as if every one of them made his or her way into our bakery.

For a four-year-old boy who could not remember having seen so many people in one place before, this was the greatest night of the year—of my life, in fact. Here we were, at the nexus of the universe, which, to my good fortune, happened to be my parents’ little German shop, on an urban strip jammed with European beer gardens and Old World dance halls, intimate cafés that served exotic teas, and sprawling import stores that sold sausages of strange shapes and scents. Kuhn’s Delicatessen, Schmid Imports, Black Forest Market, Schwaben Stube eatery, Zum Deutschen Eck restaurant—a walk along north Lincoln Avenue, stretching out from the sprawling six corners of the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland shopping hub, suggested a stroll through a bustling Frankfurt.

During the day, the avenue shook with the clatter of street­cars rolling past our bakery and the din of hundreds of shoppers bobbing into and out of dozens of European retailers. At night, the fabulous boulevard became a light show, the soft haze of yellow street lamps mingling with the orange and green and blue of enormous storefront signs, the strip producing almost as much wattage as the theater marquees that lit up Chicago’s Loop, just a few miles away.

Even our little bakery had a powerful sign, a tower of a thousand miniature lightbulbs reaching to the top of the two-story building, twinkling day and night. “Kruse’s Bakery,” the sign read, carrying the name of the previous owner, whose shop my father and one of his brothers had purchased just a few years before. After dark, as I looked out of my bedroom window in our apartment, directly above the bakery, I marveled at the spectacle of it all, the glow of the store’s sign falling onto my bed, the neighborhood generating heat long after almost everyone had gone to sleep.

Our boisterous shop, I understood with great pride, was a bona fide landmark in Little Deutschland, and my parents played the role to the hilt.

“Wie geht es Ihnen?”—How are you?—my mother asked one customer after the next, before fetching the cookies and cakes and breads that my father and his brother had made just hours (and sometimes just moments) before. Standing four feet, eleven inches tall, my mother did not cut an imposing figure behind the shop’s counter, but she made up for her small size with her energy. When the store was at its busiest, she darted from the bakery shelves to the cash register to the customers like some kind of tiny windup figure. Every sale—even of a single Kaiser roll or a lone Danish or a couple of chocolate cookies dusted with sprinkles—seemed a significant event to her. If the patrons noticed my mother’s red, frostbitten fingers under the bright fluorescent lights that illuminated the pastries and rolls and cupcakes, they didn’t say so, usually offering a simple “Danke schön” after she handed over the goods in crisp, white waxed bags.

Occasionally, my father emerged from the vast baking area behind the store’s lobby to observe the scene and chat with his clientele. A white apron drawn around his muscular five-foot, six-inch physique, a paper baker’s cap tamping down his thick, wavy red hair, he beamed to see so many people clamoring for his work. They had been lured to his store not only by the dazzling sign outside but, more important, by the luscious pastries and breads artfully arranged in the window display, fronting Lincoln Avenue, and glistening under the little spotlights trained on them. The moment customers pushed through the door, they took in the aromas of sweet creams and candied jellies and freshly baked doughs. I can remember breathing in deeply and never wanting to exhale, because that would mean letting go of this heady bouquet.

How the German locals would have reacted if they had been told that the woman serving the food had been, not so long ago, a child in the crosshairs of German machine guns, that the man presiding over the cakes and breads had been dying of typhoid in Buchenwald, is hard to guess.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, my parents had gone through great agonies to arrive at this little shop. My father had led a charmed childhood in Sosnowiecz, Poland, where his large family thrived, operating a successful bakery of their own. But in 1942, when my father was twenty, the Nazis took him to a labor camp and, eventually, on a death march to Buchenwald, while the Allies bombed Europe and pushed the Germans into retreat. My father spent more than a year recuperating in Wiesbaden after the war, then came to Chicago in 1949 to meet surviving relatives and start over, making a living as a baker, the only trade he knew.

My mother as a child had flourished in a little town in easternmost Poland, Dubno, spoiled as the first grandchild in an extended family. But they lost everything with the Soviet occupation of Dubno, in 1939, less than three weeks after Germany and the USSR entered a nonaggression pact that divided Poland between them. Two years later, after the Nazis broke the deal and pushed deeper into Poland, my mother—barely eleven years old—began a four-year journey of running and hiding. She came to America as a ­sixteen-year-old, never educated beyond the third grade. In Chi­cago, where she had relatives, she worked for a pittance in candy and clothing factories. Each morning, she spent an hour before work applying various salves to acne-scarred skin, then rode a bus to work, returning to a rented room late at night, a few dollars richer.

She met my father on a blind date. After a tempestuous courtship—my mother once throwing her engagement ring at my father over a disagreement, since long-forgotten—they married in 1953 and prepared for the arrival of their first child, me, the next year. My mother was so weak, thin, and ill during her pregnancy that many a time she didn’t have the strength to turn the key in the door of their North Side apartment after coming home from shopping, as she would often tell me later. So while my father was at work, she frequently sat on the carpeted stairs of the building’s hallway, waiting for a neighbor to help.

Not long after I was born, my parents had saved enough money from my father’s work as a baker to buy Kruse’s, in partnership with my Uncle Don. But why, after all they had experienced, choose a bakery in the heart of Germantown? Why not somewhere else—anywhere else?

They homed in on one of the busiest commercial centers outside the high-rent Loop and took their hard-won knowledge of German culture and taste with them, hoping to make a buck in the process. In ethnic, blue-collar Chicago, where else would they go? Greektown? Chinatown? If that meant keeping quiet about who they were—Jews in Germantown—in order to survive, that was a price they were willing to pay. Their identity already had cost them so much more. (I thought this through, of course, only years later.)

This was our family’s little secret. My father told me we were Jewish, although he did not tell me what this meant, just that I was not to tell a single person. Only my father and mother and me were to know—plus my aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins and in-laws and their cousins. But no stranger—no one outside the family—must ever find out.

The secret was safe with me. Who cared about an identity I didn’t understand anyway? I was growing up in the most sumptuous place on earth, our huge apartment above the bakery seeming to stretch for miles from one end of the building to the other. Every morning, I’d race downstairs directly into the store and pick out that day’s breakfast: chocolate cake, honey cake, pound cake, cheesecake, cupcakes, jelly rolls, cinnamon rolls, apple twists, muffins, white bread, black bread, banana bread, cherry bread—every baked good imaginable sat there waiting for me, for the taking, every morning of my young life.

After picking out what I wanted and grabbing a tiny carton of extra pulpy orange juice, I climbed onto a stool behind the counter and savored my meal, watching people pour into the shop on the way to work, the gruff businessmen who grabbed their rolls and coffee and ran, the moms who stocked up a week’s worth of goods and got a bit of a discount for it, and the odd man who called himself “Bungo” and insisted he had the telekinetic power to make things move by pointing his finger at them. He proved it by placing a fresh cigarette on the glass countertop above one of the store’s cookie displays and wagging his forefinger as the cigarette rolled back and forth. Amazing.

My mother entertained and endured these characters with considerable cheer, joking and laughing with them, thanking them for shopping at our bakery, and urging them to come back soon.

Often, while enjoying breakfast, I studied the enormous front page of the morning’s newspaper, trying to read all the words, often zeroing in on the color editorial cartoon, attempting to figure out who those pencil-sketched people were and what they were saying. Then I jumped off the stool and ran into the baking area, where my father and Uncle Don kneaded doughs and lifted enormous pans into ovens, then pulled them out with gigantic pan holders. From early in their workday, large rings of sweat had gathered around the necks of their white T-shirts, around their underarms, and even on the brims of their baker caps. In the summer, I couldn’t understand how they endured the heat; in the winter, though, the deep warmth of the place made you feel as though you never could be cold again.

I marveled at how fast my father could make little Kaiser rolls and birdies by hand, several dozen a minute, it seemed, and how perfectly turned each one was. His hands—­remarkably large and tough and discolored a pale orange, perhaps from so many years of working large clumps of dough—moved relentlessly, like machines. I watched in awe, too, as Uncle Don—not quite as brawny as my dad but nearly as deft—created wedding cakes, architectural triumphs, one layer delicately positioned atop the next and supported by tiny white pillars, the structure topped by plastic statuettes of the bride and groom in formal attire.

It was obvious to me even then that my father and his brother were men of tremendous skill, even though their stained white work clothes were not as sleek as the three-piece suits that often walked into our store. In a way, these brothers were artists, though, unlike the work of painters or writers, their masterpieces were designed to disappear at the very instant they were being enjoyed.

My father told me he had learned to make these cakes and breads back home, in Poland, where his father taught him the trade. He didn’t say why his father and mother and most of his siblings and uncles and aunts weren’t alive anymore. Nor did my mother mention what happened to her mother and father and their many sisters and brothers and children, except to note that they all had died some years earlier. I didn’t understand why there were so many grandparents on TV and in our store and on the street but none in our life. And I sensed that I was not allowed to ask.


Early every Sunday morning (the only day the bakery was closed), I jumped out from under the covers, sprinted down the long hall to my parents’ room and dove into their bed, while they struggled to wake up. They seemed amused as I burrowed between them, and before long my father was playing the “tap-tap” game with me—telegraphing rhythms on my shoulder and challenging me to guess the name of the tune he was performing. I had no idea at that point how much he had wanted to become a professional musician, nor how much talent he had, nor why this never happened.

As far as I was concerned, he already was a great musician. I could tell whenever he picked up his cream-colored Hohner accordion and played waltzes and polkas for me. He told me he bought the instrument in Germany years ago and learned to play it by ear. He was a painter, too, as anyone who walked into our apartment could tell from the art on our walls. My dad’s oil renderings of ships at sea and pencil sketches of birds in flight suggested the work of a man with years of formal training, though he was entirely self-taught.

Once we finished playing several rounds of our self-styled version of “Name That Tune,” we climbed out of bed, my parents speaking Polish to one another, fast and freely. (I was bewildered as to what they were saying, until I started to crack the code while I was in kindergarten. Though I never said a word in Polish, I learned to understand my parents’ secret language nearly as well as they spoke it—or I believed I did.) My mother soon began washing dishes from the night before, and my father started making “matzoh brei,” mixing a batter of eggs, cracking and dipping sheets of matzoh into it, and frying the strangely shaped creation in a pan. You could hear the food sizzle on the stove, my father constantly turning the matzoh brei one way or another to make sure it was evenly browned. This weekly breakfast—probably in existence since the Hebrews were booted out of Egypt—was the only palpable sign that anyone in this house was Jewish, for there were no prayer books for Shabbos, no menorahs for Hanukkah, no mezuzah on the door, no tfillin or yarmulkes or Stars of David. At least none that I remember.

In the late afternoons, we watched Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on TV, my dad softly whistling along to a Schubert symphony or a melody by Brahms, while I lay on the couch and reveled in the radiant sound of the New York Philharmonic, led by that hyperkinetic man on the podium. Or my dad fixated on the Fight of the Week, swinging his clenched fists as the battles unfolded in the ring, my mother urging him to calm down.

Before the fighters were completely bloodied, my mother took me for my bath, a pleasant experience until she got to my hair. After lathering it up, she began scratching so hard and for so long—digging her fingers deep into my scalp—that it seemed as if she were trying to scrape something off of me. It hurt.

Often, we spent Sundays visiting aunts and uncles, my dad fixing a clip-on bow tie to my pressed white shirt and telling me, with a huge smile on his face, “You look like a million dollars.” Then he helped my mother pick the best dress to wear and the right costume jewelry to match it, meticulously combing her hair for her and, finally, proudly settling my mother and me into our two-toned green Chrysler sedan.


Come Monday, it was time for school. A babysitter picked me up in the morning and brought me home afterward. Not for one moment was I to be left unattended, my parents said—I must always be holding the hand of a grown-up. I must never play with friends unless a trusted adult was close by, and the moment I returned home from school, I must come inside and stay there. Alone upstairs above the bakery after school, I amused myself for hours writing little stories or drawing pictures or watching Gene Autry or The Honeymooners on TV—yet I yearned for a friend or a sibling or someone, anyone, to talk to, to play with.


On Sale
Apr 20, 2009
Page Count
304 pages

Howard Reich

About the Author

Howard Reich is the veteran jazz critic of the Chicago Tribune and the winner of many awards. A longtime correspondent for Downbeat magazine, he is also the author, with William Gaines, of the critically acclaimed biography Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton. He lives in suburban Chicago.

Learn more about this author