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  • Writer's pictureShelly Sanders

FAMILY SECRETS ROOTED IN LATVIA

I decid­ed it was time to inves­ti­gate my Nana’s guard­ed past in 2017, when my son was explor­ing uni­ver­si­ties. She’d died when I was thir­teen, tak­ing her child­hood secrets about grow­ing up in Rus­sia with her to the grave. Nana nev­er spoke about why she’d con­cealed her Judaism when she came to Cana­da. When my great-grand­moth­er, Sophie, died (she had immi­grat­ed after WWII), Nana didn’t even let my moth­er attend the funer­al; she didn’t want her know­ing Sophie was buried in a Jew­ish cemetery. I could under­stand why Nana hid her Judaism when she arrived in Mon­tre­al, Cana­da, in 1938. Signs pro­claim­ing, ​‘No Blacks, No Jews, No Dogs’ were post­ed all over the city. The fas­cist Nation­al Uni­ty Par­ty, based in Mon­tre­al, was gain­ing steam under Adri­an Arcand, who called him­self the ​‘Cana­di­an Fuhrer.’ In 1939, Cana­da – like the US – turned away the St. Louis, a ship car­ry­ing 900 Jews seek­ing refuge from the Nazi regime. These events marred Canada’s his­to­ry and Nana’s rela­tion­ship with her­self and her faith. After my first child was born in 1993, armed with a note­book, two pens, and a long list of ques­tions, I vis­it­ed Nana’s old­er sis­ter, Nucia, in search of answers to my ques­tions. Nucia was an irri­ta­ble chain-smok­er with glau­co­ma who’d some­how out­lived Nana by twen­ty years; she did not share my desire to comb the past (but she did inspire the char­ac­ter of Miri­am in Daugh­ters of the Occu­pa­tion). In fact, she was high­ly sus­pi­cious of my motives. Even­tu­al­ly, she opened up and I left with twen­ty pages of notes. I also man­aged to get sev­er­al pho­tos of Nana as a child, many with an uniden­ti­fied young man pos­ing with the fam­i­ly. These images would prove to be cru­cial lat­er on, point­ing me in the direc­tion of Latvia. The first thing I noticed, when I re-exam­ined these pho­tos in 2017, were the names, ​‘Dvin­sk’ and ​‘Dunaburg’ writ­ten in the cor­ners. An online search revealed these were pre­vi­ous names of Dau­gavpils, a south­east­ern city in Latvia. In a sub­se­quent cen­sus search, I learned four com­pelling facts. First, two of my great-grand­par­ents, Sophie Press­man and Max Talan, lived in Dau­gavpils in the late 1890’s with their par­ents and sib­lings. Next, they were mar­ried in Riga in 1905, the same year they moved – bizarrely – to Siberia. Third, Max had a younger broth­er, Yos­sel, who was mur­dered in Riga dur­ing the Holo­caust, along with his wife and two chil­dren. Final­ly, a num­ber of oth­er rel­a­tives per­ished or van­ished dur­ing the war.

Nana nev­er spoke about liv­ing in Riga or any fam­i­ly in Latvia. Yet there she was, smil­ing in pho­tos with peo­ple whose names she seem­ing­ly erased from her past. Nana’s silence made me pine for what had been lost and drove me to dig deep­er, to under­stand the peo­ple who’d shaped her iden­ti­ty— her par­ents, Max and Sophie Talan. To do this, I had to go to the coun­try where my Jew­ish roots were sown. Latvia. ______ In Octo­ber of 2018, I arrived in Riga, Latvia, eager to walk in my ances­tors’ foot­steps. It was the first time I’d set foot in a for­mer Sovi­et-occu­pied coun­try. Imme­di­ate­ly, I saw how Riga was a city full of con­tra­dic­tions; bleak, Sovi­et-era apart­ment blocks rose on one side of the Dau­ga­va Riv­er, and elab­o­rate Byzan­tine and medieval build­ings flanked the oppo­site side.

After check­ing into my hotel, I met with Ilya Lensky, direc­tor of the Jews in Latvia Muse­um. He was able to fill in sev­er­al areas of fam­i­ly his­to­ry for me. Max and Jos­sel Talan were suc­cess­ful mer­chants in Riga, based in the pros­per­ous sec­tion of the city where they had lived.

Because of Max’s involve­ment in the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion — a march through Riga on Jan­u­ary 13, 1905, that turned into a mas­sacre with sev­en­ty peo­ple killed — he was exiled to Siberia. He like­ly mar­ried Sophie the same year so she could trav­el with him. That’s why Nana was born in Siberia. A dev­as­tat­ing exile iron­i­cal­ly saved the fam­i­ly from being among the 93,000 Jews mur­dered in the Lat­vian Holo­caust. I was born because my great-grand­par­ents were exiled. This rev­e­la­tion was hard to digest. These twists of fate made me feel part of some­thing larg­er than myself. For the first time, I tru­ly saw how I was cre­at­ed by deci­sions made by the peo­ple who came before me. ______ The fol­low­ing after­noon, I was at the Nation­al Archives sift­ing through a stack of old pho­to albums and doc­u­ments, assem­bled using ances­try details I’d sent months ear­li­er. But every­thing was writ­ten in either Russ­ian or Lat­vian. The stern-faced archivist made it clear she didn’t have time to help, though she did say the twen­ty-six peo­ple she’d includ­ed were my rela­tions, all of whom per­ished in the Holo­caust. This gut­ted me. I was begin­ning to under­stand why Nana didn’t talk about Riga or the fam­i­ly she’d left behind (as polit­i­cal exiles, they were allowed to vis­it Latvia). I took pho­tos of the doc­u­ments. Head­shots, pass­port stamps, and Cyril­lic text. I was able to pick out a few hand­writ­ten names: Schlo­mo and Ruven. Jos­sel. My skin prick­led when I real­ized Jos­sel Talan, my great-grandfather’s broth­er, was the mys­tery man stand­ing beside Nana in old fam­i­ly photos. ______ That after­noon, I made my way to the Jew­ish ghet­to, which , dur­ing WWII, housed 30,000 Jews with­in six­teen blocks. I asked the muse­um atten­dant if he could look up Jossel’s ghet­to address while I toured the museum. The muse­um is a for­mer ghet­to house, its walls still cov­ered in news­pa­pers for insu­la­tion against the arc­tic wind — one room on the ground floor and a loft above. Thir­teen peo­ple were crammed into this shack, with­out run­ning water or indoor toi­lets. I was struck by a wave of nau­sea at the thought of Jos­sel and his fam­i­ly liv­ing in such inhu­mane conditions. Back at the entrance, the muse­um atten­dant explained that Jossel’s twen­ty-one-year-old son, Ewsey, didn’t die in the Rum­bu­la for­est or in the ghet­to. He was seized by the Nazis, along with oth­er young, Jew­ish men, and forced to dig up graves of Lat­vians killed by the Sovi­ets. The Nazis pho­tographed these men with the bod­ies, and pro­claimed they were respon­si­ble; this bla­tant pro­pa­gan­da was used to ignite a pogrom against the Jews. Ewsey was shot on July 21, 1941, in the Cen­tral Prison court­yard. Nobody knows where he’s buried. The atten­dant also said he didn’t know whether Jos­sel, his wife, and daugh­ter per­ished on Novem­ber 30 or Decem­ber 8 in the Rum­bu­la forest. Dur­ing the Rum­bu­la mas­sacre, 26,000 Jews were mur­dered over two days in a man­ner and scale equal to Ukraine’s Babi Yar, yet Latvia’s Holo­caust is not part of the tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive. Both mas­sacres employed mobile death squads — Ein­satz­grup­pen — to shoot Jews in pits. Both took place in the Sovi­et Union in 1941, before gas cham­bers were used. And – because Stal­in famous­ly refused to sort the dead based on eth­nic ori­gin – vic­tims of both mas­sacres weren’t acknowl­edged as Jews until 1991, after the fall of the Sovi­et Union. Stal­in refused to admit Jews were being tar­get­ed. By his log­ic, if he’d fought anti­semitism, then the Sovi­et gov­ern­ment would be sup­port­ing the basic premise of Nazi ide­ol­o­gy — that Sovi­et rule was the rule of Jews. Lat­vian Jew­ish sur­vivors, how­ev­er, have not for­got­ten the trau­ma they endured. Every year, they trav­el to Riga to hon­or those mur­dered and to speak out against anti­semitism. Mean­while, anoth­er group of peo­ple have held an annu­al parade since 1990 to hon­or Latvia’s SS Legion, cre­at­ed in 1943 and con­trolled by the Nazis. Jew­ish groups world­wide have con­demned the event, say­ing it cel­e­brates Hitler and col­lab­o­ra­tors involved in the destruc­tion of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing the Holo­caust. In 2022, hun­dreds took part — includ­ing vet­er­ans revered as heroes who fought the Red Army for Latvia’s freedom. Still, the Lat­vian Holo­caust remains unknown glob­al­ly. This riled me, espe­cial­ly when I stood before the mass graves at Rum­bu­la to hon­or and remem­ber those mur­dered. That was the moment the seeds for Daugh­ters of the Occu­pa­tion were plant­ed.

Photo (l to r): Jossel Talan, Rachel Talan (author's grandmother), Max Talan (author's g-grandfather & brother of Jossel), Monya Talan (Rachel's brother)

When I returned home, I took my moth­er, son, and niece to see Sophie’s grave in a Jew­ish ceme­tery in Mon­tre­al. Two meno­rahs, carved into the top cor­ners of the stone, proud­ly declare my great-grandmother’s faith. I thought of Riga and the mass graves; Jos­sel and his fam­i­ly; Nana, alone with her secrets. I saw my son and niece look­ing at the tomb­stone with my moth­er and thought, here we are, three gen­er­a­tions togeth­er in a Jew­ish ceme­tery. We’ve bro­ken the silence.

--Shelly Sanders

(published by Jewish Book Council, PB Daily, May 2, 2022)

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2 Comments


katherineap3
Jun 16, 2022

I believe I found this article on the Jewish Genealogy Facebook site and just read it. I am thrilled! Recently, I realized that Dvinsk, where my father, Hymen Ralph Moskovitz, was born, in February, 1905, is now in Latvia. His papers say that he came from Russia and I know that my grandparents could speak a little Polish, so I assumed it might have been in Poland or Belarus. My grandfather came to the U.S. in about 1905 and then brought my grandmother and their to children through Canada to the U.S. I will definitely read your book and would like very much to compare some of my info with yours.

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Shelly Sanders
Shelly Sanders
Apr 02, 2023
Replying to

Hi Katherine,

So sorry I‘ve taken so long to reply; your background sounds remarkably similar to mine! It’s so gratifying to delve into our roots, isn’t it? I would love to discuss further. You can email me at shelly@shellysanders.com Have a wonderful weekend,

Shelly

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