"Criminals and anti-Semites don't read books like mine." Writer Shelly Sanders talks about a new novel about the Holocaust in Latvia
One of the largest publishing houses in the world, Harper Collins, published the novel "Daughters of the Occupation". The book by Canadian writer, Shelly Sanders, takes up a topic that is hardly touched upon in fiction - the mass murder of Jews in the Rumbula Forest in Latvia during World War II. Rus.nra.lv visited the Latvian presentation of the book at the Žanis Lipke Memorial Museum.
The main character of the book, Daughters of the Occupation, Miriam, sees how Soviet tanks enter Riga in 1940, and a year later the city is occupied by German troops. After 35 years, Miriam's granddaughter is trying to sort out family secrets and find out how her uncle disappeared in Latvia during the Holocaust.
The plot of the novel and its characters are partly inspired by the story of the family of Shelly Sanders, a Canadian Jewess who only a few years ago found out about her connection with Latvia. We spoke with Sanders about the memories of survivors, the atmosphere of secrecy, and the trauma that is passed down from generation to generation.
Your first book series, Rachel's Secret, is based on your grandmother's biography. Rachel was forced to travel half the world to survive during the wars and repressions of the 20th century. To what extent is the new novel, Daughters of the Occupation, related to your family history?
Daughters of the Occupation is an attempt to restore what could have happened to my relatives who remained in Latvia. The fact is that my great-grandfather was expelled from Riga to Siberia because he participated in the 1905 revolution. From there, after the Jewish pogrom, my ancestors moved to Shanghai, and only then ended up in Canada. But most of my family from Latvia did not leave anywhere, and contact with these people was lost. My relatives in Canada did not know what happened to their aunts, uncles, cousins during the war - only assumed that they died in the camps. Imagine that your family has disappeared and you realize that something terrible has happened to them, but you don't have any details. And there is no opportunity to bury and mourn loved ones.
I was in the same position seven years ago when I started writing this book. I have a stack of family photos stolen from my great aunt. Yes, I literally stole them: Nucia - that was the name of this woman - was so secretive that she didn’t even let me see them, so I took the photos out of her house under my clothes. When I began to study the pictures, I found in many of them the inscription, "Dvinsk". Through the Internet, I found out that this is one of the names of the city of Daugavpils. Only in this way, as an adult, I discovered that my roots are connected with Latvia. The atmosphere of secrecy is another thing that connects my family to the characters in Daughters of Occupation.
Why were your family members so secretive?
I think even in Canada they did not feel safe. My mother was born in 1938 - just at that time Canada refused to accept the passenger ship "St. Louis", on which Jews tried to emigrate from Germany. Nazi supporters were in Montreal, some of them even wearing Nazi uniforms (followers of Adrian Arcand). And all over the city were there were signs saying, "No blacks, no Jews and no dogs." Jews were not allowed to work in hospitals, go to golf clubs. I think in the end my grandmother just decided that it was easier for her to pretend that she was not Jewish and forget about the past.
During the Holocaust, almost 90 percent of the Jews living in the country perished in Latvia. But little is known about these events in the world. When we say "Holocaust", we primarily associate this word with Babi Yar in Ukraine or Auschwitz in Poland. Why do you think?
It's hard for me to give a definite answer. Babi Yar was used not only to kill Jews - both gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war died there. The executions at Babi Yar continued until 1943, so the number of victims was much higher - about 100 thousand people. Two massacres of Jews took place in the Rumbula Forest in November and December 1941, after which the executions there ceased. Perhaps that is why not much attention is riveted to the Latvian tragedy.
Do you think the Latvian authorities could have done more to talk about the Holocaust?
The Latvian authorities are doing a lot. A good memorial has been erected in the Rumbula Forest, and there are other museums in Riga, such as the memorial of Žanis Lipke, who saved Jews during the war. Latvia celebrates the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Jewish Genocide on July 4th. Latvians will definitely learn more and more about the murders in Rumbula and Bikernieki, but the difficulty is that no one outside the country knows about this tragedy.
Probably, the situation is related to the fact that few people know about Latvia and Riga in principle. I see this often in Canada and the US. And I'm ashamed of it. Because Latvia is a beautiful place, albeit with a complicated history. I try to talk about Riga as often as I can.
In the book, you very accurately conveyed the spirit of Riga - when you read about Mezha Avenue or the banks of the Daugava, you seem to be transported to these places. How did you do it?
First of all, Ilya Lensky, director of the museum "Jews in Latvia", helped me a lot. It was he who explained one of the main mysteries in the history of my family - why my great-grandfather and great-grandmother moved to Siberia from Latvia. Still, it is surprising that this expulsion actually saved their lives. Ruvin Ferber, a professor at the University of Latvia, created the ‘Names and Fates’ database of the Jewish community in Latvia, which has become the key to my research. I interviewed George Schwab, a survivor of the Liepaja ghetto, and read his book, Odyssey of a Child Survivor: From Latvia to America through Camps.
The memoirs of other survivors - such as the Riga dressmaker Frida Michelson - also became an important source. In December 1941, this woman was taken to Rumbula - and along the way she tried to show papers about what a successful dressmaker she was. So Frida wanted to prove that she was not worth killing. A member of the Einsatzgruppe hit Michelson, she lost consciousness, and she was covered with the shoes of people who took off their shoes before being shot. When the dressmaker came to her senses, she got out from under the boots and wandered around Latvia for two and a half years without a roof over her head, literally living in forests and fields. The only people who supported her were the Seventh-day Adventists. Frida kept repeating to herself: I have to survive to tell people what happened. She partly inspired me to create the image of Miriam.
What is the ideal balance between fact and fiction in historical fiction?
The author of historical prose must be accurate with the facts. But if you rely only on facts, you get a textbook, not a novel. Historical prose comes to life thanks to the characters, so sometimes you have to figure out what they say to each other, what they think. After all, there are no records of this. You have to look at the story through the eyes of the characters.
In a scene in, Daughters of the Occupation, which describes the Soviet invasion of Riga, it is said that the tanks crashed into the crowd and crushed the people. What is the source of this information? I don't know of any research that supports it.
I didn't make up the historical facts in this book. I read about these tanks in the memoirs of eyewitnesses.
How is it ethical to portray massacres in literature?
I am not a Holocaust survivor. I was not there. But it seems to me that if the witnesses of the disaster tell you their stories, then you yourself become a witness.
Your heroine does not see most of the Rumbula massacre.
She does not see much because at this moment she is unconscious. I did not come up with this to avoid bloody scenes - this was the real experience of Holocaust survivors.
Your book is also about intergenerational trauma, how people who have witnessed wars and disasters pass on the weight of their experiences to their children and grandchildren. Do you see signs of this trauma in yourself?
What my family went through, of course, greatly influenced generations. My great-grandmother Sophia survived in Shanghai with my aunt, uncle, and cousin, but they were starving. They came to Canada after the war and my mother says that my great-grandmother never smiled.
My grandmother moved to Canada after she managed to earn a business degree at the University of California, in Berkley. For a person with her background and life experience, this was a unique situation, because back then women rarely went to college. Nevertheless, my grandmother often sat in her house in Montreal in a dressing gown, playing Solitaire for a long time. She could not fully realize herself, although she had enough abilities, and she was not very affectionate with my mother. My mother was not very affectionate either and was often sad. I think that intergenerational trauma affected me too – all my life I have been prone to depression, which was passed on to my daughters.
Now, as part of the study of trauma, such a field of knowledge as epigenetics is developing. Scientists have found that when a woman bears a daughter, at the fifth month of pregnancy, there are already eggs inside the fetus, from which the next generation of women will then appear. Imagine? Three generations in one body. I feel a close connection with my grandmother, even though she has long since passed away. When I took up the study of my family history, I did it for my grandmother – I am sure that she wanted to find out the fate of her relatives.
Probably because of this connection with my ancestors, I am so attracted to Judaism and Russian literature.
Did your ancestors speak Russian?
It was their main language. My great-grandmother, even in Canada, communicated with my grandmother in Russian, and my grandmother read Russian classics in the original. Before her death, my grandmother began to speak Russian again.
Did they know the Latvian language and were they connected with the Latvian culture?
Unfortunately, I couldn't figure this out. I know that my ancestors spoke Yiddish at home. But I suppose that they could also know a little Latvian in order to communicate with the locals. Being a Latvian Jewess and a Latvian are completely different things. I don't have Latvian blood, I don't have any connection with this culture. But I am impressed by how the Latvians have managed to preserve their traditions - language, songs, dances, national costume. I attended one of the Song Celebration concerts and was at the Latvian National Art Museum and I can definitely say that I admire Latvian art.
Historical prose about the Holocaust is written, among other things, in order to prevent similar crimes in the future. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine proved once again that art cannot stop war. Is there any point in writing disaster novels after that?
Daughters of Occupation came out just at the moment when the war in Ukraine began. And it had so many parallels with the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940. Then I thought: history goes in circles. Literature, of course, will never stop a war—criminals and anti-Semites don't read books like my novel. But you still need to expand people's horizons and remind them of what happened.
June 20, 2022
The title of this haunting novel refers not only to the victims of Latvia’s Holocaust but also to their descendants, who carry the trauma of their ancestors. Sanders tells this story through three women: Miriam Talan, who survived the Rumbula forest massacre that took the lives of about 25,000 Jews; her daughter Ilana, whom she relinquished to save her from the internment camps; and Sarah, Miriam’s American granddaughter, who in the 1970s risks her life and travels to Soviet-controlled Latvia to ferret out the truth about her family’s wartime past. (Harper, May 3)