On one extraordinary day in 1940, Miriam Talan’s comfortable life is shattered. While she gives birth to her second child, the Soviets invade the Baltic state of Latvia and occupy the capital city of Riga, her home. Because the Miriam and her husband Max are Jewish, the Soviets confiscate Max’s business and the family’s house and bank accounts, leaving them with nothing.Then, the Nazis arrive. They kill Max and begin to round up Jews. Fearing for her newborn son and her young daughter, Ilana, Miriam asks her loyal housekeeper to hide them and conceal their Jewish roots to keep them safe until the savagery ends.
This is the platform on which Daughters of the Occupation (Harper, $16.99) is built. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to author Shelly Sanders about the real-life events that inspired her novel.
YZM: The story of Latvian Jews during the Holocaust is less well known than the stories of other Jews in Europe; why do you think that is?
SS: I think the best way to answer this question is by comparing Latvia’s Rumbula Massacre to the notorious Babi Yar tragedy in Kiev. Both massacres led to the deaths of a horrifying number of Jews, almost 34,000 in Babi Yar and between 25,000 and 26,000 in Rumbula. Both employed mobile death squads—Einsatzgruppen—to shoot the Jews in pits. Both took place in the Soviet Union in 1941, before gas chambers were used, yet the victims were not acknowledged as Jews until 1991.
There are, however, two slight yet crucial distinctions between Babi Yar and Rumbula. Babi Yar occurred two months earlier than Rumbula. In fact, Babi Yar marked the first time Jews were executed by the Einsatzgruppen, making this genocide historically symbolic. And the Nazis went on to murder Roma and Soviet prisoners of war at Babi Yar for two more years, bringing the total to at least 100,000, the largest number of people killed in one location in WWII. This is another reason Babi Yar has been prominent compared to Rumbula.
I also want to point out that the fate of Jews in the entire Soviet Union has been largely overlooked compared to the rest of Europe because Stalin declared Jews were not a nation and, therefore, could not be targeted by the Nazis. He rammed this anti-Semitic propaganda down the throats of Red Army soldiers and citizens. At the end of the Great Patriotic War, as it was called in the Soviet Union, just a few of the hundreds of mass graves were acknowledged and the victims were not identified as Jews, but as “innocent Soviet victims” and “victims of fascism.” It was only when the Iron Curtain fell that these mass graves filled with Jews were recognized.
YZM: How much of this novel is based on fact and how much was invented?
SS: One of the biggest challenges in historical fiction is balancing truth and imagination to ensure facts don’t weigh down the story. In Daughters of the Occupation, all of the historical events took place and many of the characters existed, but I fictionalized dialogue and inner thoughts, of course, as well as descriptions of places that no longer exist.
As a former journalist, I begin my writing process as if I’m embarking on non-fiction, with an insane amount of research. For Daughters of the Occupation, I was fortunate to discover a number of self-published memoirs by survivors, including Frida Michelson, who inspired Miriam’s character. These brutally honest, unedited accounts offer tremendous insight into what it was like being Jewish under Latvian, Soviet, and Nazi occupations.
To evoke WWII Latvia, I traveled there twice and discovered the old part of Riga’s streets and buildings are largely the same as they were in the 1940’s. I walked the same cobblestones as the ghetto residents, visited a ghetto house, explored the Art Nouveau district and toured an apartment, much like the one where Miriam first lives, strolled along the Daugava River, and even stood where Janis Lipke, who rescues Miriam, lived and hid Jews.
Then, I put on my journalist’s cap and interviewed the curator of the Jews in Latvia Museum and the founder of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Latvia. A few months later, while I was in New York, I had tea with a survivor of the Riga ghetto, who was writing his own memoir about the war.
By immersing myself in the history, the place, and its people, my goal is to blend fact with fiction, to write memorable characters and a narrative that stays with readers and, in some way, broadens their knowledge of the Holocaust.
YZM: How did you first learn about this family history and what effect did it have on you?
SS: Silence has underscored my life, with my grandmother hiding her Russian Jewish past from her daughters and, in turn, my mother hiding it from me until I was eighteen years old. At the time, I didn’t know what to do with this revelation. But after I had my first child, I was overwhelmed with a desire to learn more about my grandmother. The only person who could provide this information was my Aunt Nucia, my grandmother’s sister.
Getting information out of Nucia was like peeling an apple with your fingers. She looked at my notebook with suspicion. She answered my questions with questions. Her evasiveness bordered on paranoia. After assuring Nucia I just wanted to be able to tell my daughter about her ancestry, she loosened up and told me about the tall wooden home, on the banks of the Ob River, where she’d grown up with my grandmother and their younger brother. The samovar that bubbled on their table day and night. The antisemitic pogrom that forced them from Russia to Shanghai, which took Jews without papers.
When I asked why my grandmother had concealed her Jewish roots, Nucia abruptly stopped talking. She wouldn’t even let me go through the boxes of photos in her bedroom. Before leaving, I snuck into her room and stuffed photos of my grandmother down my shirt. Nucia died a year later. The rest of her photos had disappeared. I don’t know what happened to them.
Over the next decade, I had two more children and continued to delve into my maternal past, reading everything I could about Russian Jews, pogroms, Shanghai and Judaism. I went to my town’s synagogue and took classes to understand the religion and culture. When I began attending Shabbat services, I had the unnerving sense of having heard the prayers before, of a connection I couldn’t define yet couldn’t ignore. A few months later, I reclaimed my faith, an emotional experience that felt perfectly natural, as if I was always meant to be Jewish.
The photos I’d taken from Nucia ended up being vital to my discovery of my Latvian-Jewish roots. By tracing the location of the photos, I discovered that my great-grandparents, Sophie Pressman and Max Talan, had lived in Dvinsk, Latvia during the late 1890’s. I also located the record of Max and Sophie’s 1905 marriage in Riga.
During a meeting in Riga with the curator of the Jews in Latvia Museum, I learned why my grandmother was born in Siberia. Her father, Max, was exiled to Siberia in 1905 because he was involved in a workers’ strike showing his solidarity towards those killed in St. Petersburg on Bloody Sunday. This exile saved Max and Sophie’s lives. In 1941, when the Nazis occupied Latvia, twenty-six of their relatives in Riga were forced into the ghetto, then shot in the Rumbula massacre. Max’s exile meant my grandmother lived. Which meant my mother was born. Which meant I was born.
Today, I understand why my grandmother and Nucia were so guarded about their past. I have a much better appreciation for my freedom, safety and the opportunity to write about my family’s history without censorship. I’m proud to finally break the silence that has defined my maternal side and to speak out against the anti-Semitism that destroyed so many branches of my family tree.
YZM: This is also a novel of mothers and daughters; care to comment?
SS: I didn’t appreciate what it meant to be a daughter until I had my own. Only then, did I understand the fierce attachment a mother feels for her child. How you physically hurt when they hurt. And I began to see myself more critically as a daughter. I saw how self-absorbed I’d been as a teen, how I’d wanted to be the complete opposite of my mother, how I’d said horrible things in the heat of the moment. I was desperate to be independent, to make my own mistakes, which I did, in spades.
Becoming a mother made me feel vulnerable and strong all at once. It also brought me closer to my mother whose advice I sought regularly. Motherhood was something we had in common. It made me appreciate my mother for the sacrifices she’d made to raise three children. Then, when I looked back at my maternal side and realized we’d all given birth to two daughters, from my great-grandmother down to me, I felt part of something bigger than myself. I was part of a family with women who did whatever they had to do to survive. This pushed me to write a story about mothers and daughters, to make them strong, resilient and imperfect.
YZM: How did the trauma of the war affect the women in this family? Do you feel that trauma was passed down from one generation to the next?
SS: I first came across the term “intergenerational trauma” in a 2018 article in The Atlantic. A researcher found that Holocaust survivors and their children had changes in their genes that were stress-related. I was intrigued. I began reading everything about the subject. I was fascinated by survivors’ children and grandchildren describing fears rooted in the Holocaust, though they weren’t born until after the war. That’s when the idea for a novel exploring intergenerational trauma began to emerge.
In Miriam’s family, trauma runs through the generations like a current. While we don’t see much of Ilana as an adult we know, through Sarah’s recollections, how she’s been forever impacted by the Soviet and Nazi occupations. Ilana insists on the curtains being closed in her Chicago home during the day, for instance. This goes back to her childhood when the family had to live in darkness to avoid being seen by Soviet or German bombers. She won’t let Sarah take part in sleepovers or go to public places without an adult because, in her mind, she is responsible for ‘losing’ Monia. She never forgives herself.
As Sarah begins to unravel her mother and Miriam’s past, she begins to see how she’s been affected by their behavior. Like Miriam, she struggles to open herself up fully to a relationship. Like her mother, she is afraid of being abandoned. All three women have strong exteriors, yet they’re fragile inside, riven with conflicting emotions. Sarah’s decision to go to Riga, therefore, is driven by her mother’s and Miriam’s lifelong desire for closure.
YZM: Now that you have written this book, what is your relationship to that past history?
SS: In Daughters of the Occupation, I wanted Sarah to do what I couldn’t—talk to her grandmother as an adult. My grandmother died when I was thirteen and more interested in boys than my ancestry. Over the years, there have been many, many times when I wished I could ask her questions and get to know her. Researching and writing this book has given me the chance to walk in her footsteps in Riga, to ‘meet’ relatives she’d loved and lost, and to fill in some of the blanks of her history.
Like Sarah, I went to Riga looking for closure. Unlike Sarah, I didn’t find all the answers I wanted. Now, I have a burning need to find out what happened to my grandmother’s cousins and aunts unaccounted for after the war. One cousin, Il’ya, is seated beside my grandmother in a photo where she’s around five or six years old. In a later photo, they are beside one another again, both teenagers. They had to be close, considering she’d made the trek from Siberia as a child to visit Riga, for the first photo, and had come from Shanghai for the second one.
After writing about how the Latvian Holocaust forever changed Miriam and her family, I feel an obligation, as my grandmother’s namesake and heir, to carry on the Jewish traditions lost within our family. And I need to find out what happened to the people she must have thought about often, to reconcile the past and ensure their names are not forgotten.
Balancing History and Story in Historical Fiction
Author Shelly Sanders shares the historical fiction books that led her to writing her own historical fiction novels, and tips on balancing history and story when pursuing historical fiction.
MAY 2, 2022
Lilith Magazine: May 18, 2022
Growing up in suburban Chicago, an hour from the Wisconsin border, I devoured The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. These novels, which begin in Wisconsin in the late 1800s, were my introduction to historical fiction. Wilder’s simple yet insightful words gave me a vivid sense of what it was like to grow up in midwest America: “They were cosy and comfortable in their little house made of logs, with the snow drifted around it and the wind crying because it could not get in by the fire.”
Laura was the reason I read and re-read these books. I saw bits of myself in her character, even though I wasn’t even born when she was a girl. Making characters relatable, focusing on events that have the greatest impact on protagonists, and engaging the senses are key to captivating historical fiction that is not weighed down by the past. This is what I kept in mind as I researched, outlined, and wrote Daughters of the Occupation (DOTO).
Create Strong Relatable CharactersAlthough history anchors the narrative, it’s characters who make the past come alive. How people react to events is crucial to balancing history and story. They have to be compelling, with quirks, flaws, needs, and secrets, and they must resonate with readers. In DOTO, I wanted to show how a young Jewish mother, Miriam, survived the Soviet and Nazi occupations in Latvia. But I was overwhelmed by the prospect of creating a character who’d endured horrific violence 80 years ago.
I shoved my huge pile of notes and reference books aside and focused on Miriam. If she was going to live through pivotal historical events, if she was going to be authentic, I had to know her inside and out. First, I have to admit that Miriam was actually inspired by my Aunt Nucia, a crotchety widow who’d been estranged from her son and grandchildren for decades. Miriam’s manicured fingernails, chain smoking, her habit of watering plants with tea, and her contrariness all came from Nucia.
Once I had a clear image of Miriam, I was able to probe deeper, into her essence—what she wanted, how she interacted with others, good and bad habits, what she was like as a mother and grandmother, and what she regretted. Then, I built a character arc for Miriam that corresponded with the historical narrative. To do this, I merged the major events with Miriam’s emotional transformation over the course of events.
Here’s how I integrated history and fiction:
I drew a straight line with significant historical events noted.
I added a bell curve above this line to indicate spots where my protagonist encounters obstacles.
I compared my character’s journey with the sequence of events, making sure that the internal growth of my character corresponded with the external occurrences.
In DOTO, for instance, the first crucial event is the unexpected Soviet occupation. Obviously, this alone would distress Miriam. Still, I wanted to add tension. By putting Miriam in a car on the way to the hospital about to give birth as Soviet tanks roll into Riga, there is maximum drama. Readers are immediately invested in Miriam, who becomes physically and emotionally traumatized by the Soviet occupation.
For Sarah, in 1970s Chicago, the crucial events—losing her mother, pushing against traditional expectations as a woman in a male-dominated industry, discovering her mother’s past—are more nuanced, but just as important. Because they shape Sarah’s identity. She wouldn’t have even considered traveling to Riga unless she’d been stubborn and bereaved.
By interconnecting the past with a distinctive personality, the reader understands how and why a character reacts to certain events. Decisions and interior thoughts feel more believable, more authentic within the context of history.
Focus on Pivotal Events
If you think about best-selling historical fiction, you’ll see that writers don’t jolt readers from the story with info dumps. Rather, history, plot, and characters are woven seamlessly together. To achieve this synergy in DOTO, I constructed a sequential outline that showed major historical events. This is where you get rid of extraneous facts that bog down the story. You have to be ruthless. You have to ‘kill all your darlings,’ an expression that refers to the elimination of unnecessary words, plots and turns of phrase.
For DOTO, constructing the outline should have been straightforward, with a glut of inciting events—two occupations, the Jewish ghetto, and mass murder. But I kept getting distracted by tangential occurrences. I’d read so many nonfiction accounts, it was hard to wade through my notes and determine what to keep and what to discard.
The journalist side of me demanded total accuracy while the fiction writer side pressed me to pay full attention to my characters. It was an ongoing battle as I completed the first draft. I ended up overwriting, adding far too many historical details that slowed the narrative. Reading it out loud, hearing whole paragraphs that took me out of the story, helped me get rid of extraneous words.
One decision I made early on, was to limit the atrocities. The extent of Nazi brutality was hard to stomach. There were days I had to stop researching or writing because I was struck by headaches and nausea. I wanted to show readers a little-known part of the Holocaust, but I didn’t want to overwhelm people with horrifying details. Sometimes, less really is more.
Engage the Reader’s Senses
One of the things I love most about writing historical fiction is the opportunity to immerse myself in the past. In addition to reading everything I can find about the period, place, and people, I study photos and watch films and documentaries set in the time period, to get a sense of the language, expressions, and gestures.
For DOTO, I found a disturbing yet important documentary on Netflix, Einsatzgruppen, which, translated, means ‘death squads.’ The Nazis were obsessed with filming and taking photos of their gruesome actions, proof of the unimaginable. In Einsatzgruppen, not only is there actual footage of the mass murders in Latvia and elsewhere, the producers interview witnesses, children at the time, now seniors, who describe the sounds, the sight of people marching to their executions, and the helplessness they felt as onlookers.
I was fortunate to travel to Riga twice, where I experienced the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the city that became the setting for DOTO. I ate traditional Latvian food, walked the cobblestone streets, visited an actual ghetto house, and talked to people about their experiences living under communism. When I began writing, I was able to describe how kvass tasted, how the trees’ afternoon shadows stretched tall and thin at Rumbula, how voices and footfalls echoed in Soviet buildings.
“Persons appear to us according to the light we throw upon them from our own minds,” said Laura Ingalls Wilder, getting to the heart of her genre: character and creativity. If you understand the importance of remarkable people, set amidst a place and time that come alive through words that evoke the senses, then you are well on your way to writing historical fiction that balances history and story.