Daughters of the Occupation, published this year, is “inspired by true events” and a real gut-punching piece of historical fiction. Author Shelly Sanders discovered some truths about her family’s past as Jews in Riga when both Soviets and Nazis overran the country and persecuted them. She used this information as a springboard to write a novel about Miriam and Sarah, a grandmother and granddaughter who embark on harrowing journeys in very different time periods to find their family members and preserve their history. Chapters alternate between Miriam’s story, set in Latvia during the war, and Sarah’s, set in 1976 Chicago and Latvia.
The novel opens in 1976 with the funeral for Sarah’s mother/Miriam’s daughter Ilana, and we learn very quickly that the relationships among these three women have been tense. Ilana and her mother had been estranged for years, and Sarah’s attempts to become closer to Miriam are rebuffed. Inter-generational conflict is certainly not unusual in any family, but in the case of these women, terrible family secrets are at the root of the problem. When Sarah goes through her mother’s belongings, she discovers photos and letters from her mother’s childhood in Riga. When she asks Miriam for answers, she learns that Miriam had had two children — Ilana and a son named Monya whom Miriam could not find when WWII ended.
Sarah’s questions spark painful memories for Miriam. The chapters from her point of view show the reader the fate of Riga’s Jews after the first Soviet invasion, then after the Nazi invasion and finally after the return of the Soviets. Sanders goes into graphic and horrifying detail in describing the fate of Latvian Jews in the forties and the horrible sacrifices Miriam had to make in order to survive and find her children again. The description of the massacre at Rumbula, which is on a par with Babi Yar in its atrocity, will probably stay with me forever. Miriam’s pain, her torment and her silence make more sense after reading about the terror and death that dominated her life during the war.
For Sarah, an American girl raised without exposure to her Jewish roots, learning about Latvia and Rumbula at the local library is shocking, and discovering that she might have an uncle still alive in Latvia serves as the impetus for her to try to find him before her grandmother dies. The chapters about Sarah’s journey were very interesting to me, and they serve as a reminder that many people today would have no idea how incredibly difficult and dangerous it would have been to travel to the Soviet Union (of which Latvia was a part) and ask questions about the past. Sanders, in her authors’ note, explains how she researched this part of the novel, and how she used real stories of people like Sarah to describe the fictional trip to Riga in 1976. Think of the stories you might read today about Americans going to China or North Korea, and you might get a sense of the restrictions placed on information and people there, and the political danger you might find yourself in if caught doing or saying something forbidden. Sarah has little time and doesn’t know the language. She has to decide whom to trust and whether her desire for the truth might cause danger for the person she hopes to find.
I appreciate that Sanders does not tie up her story in a neat little “happily ever after” bow. While losing and then trying to find Monya is the point of the two narratives, it’s really the story of Miriam and Sarah, their relationship, that is central. The trauma of the Holocaust is passed down generation to generation and, as painful as it is, remembering it and speaking it is vital. It honors the memory of those who perished and, we hope, teaches us how to recognize and prevent genocide from occurring again (something that, I fear, we are failing at). Overall, this book is a revelation and very well conceived and written.