Once my Mother is a kind of two-pronged documentary in which the Australian director, Sophia Turkiewicz, explores the horror journey that her mother, an orphan from a young age, had to endure, as well as her own journey of learning to forgive her mother after she’d ‘abandoned’ her in an orphanage in Australia.
Helen, the mother, born in Poland in the years before the Second World War, lost both her parents early on. She went to live for a few years with an uncle in Poland, but he suddenly threw her out on the streets when she was 11 or 12. In the first of several intrepid undertakings she walked to the nearest big town, and survived on the streets for four years (!), without ever being forced into prostitution.
The Russians took over half of Poland after Hitler divided the country up between Germany and Russia - without asking the Poles. Thousands of Poles were sent to Siberia by train where they were forced to work in the freezing weather. Their general, Anders, refused to train them for the Russian army. Here’s what Wikipedia says about Anders (he must have been a brave man to stand up to Stalin): Continued friction with the Soviets over political issues as well as shortages of weapons, food and clothing, led to the eventual exodus of Anders' men – known as the Anders Army – together with a sizeable contingent of Polish civilians via the Persian Corridor into Iran, Iraq and Palestine. Here, Anders formed and led the 2nd Polish Corps, fighting alongside the Western Allies, while agitating for the release of Polish nationals still in the Soviet Union.
In the movie Sophia makes the point that the Polish men wouldn't leave without the women and children, so they all went.
Helen was part of this huge exodus; it required them to walk 2000 miles to the south of Russia, and later they went on another extraordinary walk 2000 miles east. Finally after these two awful treks she finished up in Africa, in a British refugee camp. She met an Italian prisoner-of-war and he fathered a child with her. However, he was sent back to Italy after the war. Being a solo mother she was castigated yet eventually, when the refugees were sent on, she got to Australia (Perth, initially) and finally to Adelaide. She was forced to leave her daughter in the orphanage for two years so she could get work; again, as a solo mother she was sidelined.
She managed to find a Polish man amongst the circle of refugees, a man who was willing to marry her, even though he knew she didn’t particularly love him or find him attractive. Thankfully he was a good guy, and Sophia was brought home into the family. The marriage prospered and other children came along.
It took Sophia a long time to get over her sense of abandonment, but finally in her fifties (!) she managed to see that her mother’s abandonment had been far more severe than her own. How the mother got through all she did when hundreds were dying around her is hard to grasp.
There's a great deal of archival material, some of it seeminglessly woven in with acted shots, clips from an earlier film Sophia made about her mother, and more recent material filmed when Helen was living in an old people's home. It's an extraordinarily moving film.