The Jew­ish Club build­ing in Riga, Latvia, 1938

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.

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.

Author’s grand­moth­er, father (Max Talan, seat­ed) with Jos­sel Talan peek­ing over her shoul­der. Pho­to cour­tesy of the author.

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.

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.

Daugh­ters of the Occu­pa­tion by Shelly Sanders is out May 3rd 2022

Shelly Sanders is a free­lance jour­nal­ist with arti­cles in the Toron­to Star, Maclean’s, and Reader’s Digest. She has writ­ten three YA his­tor­i­cal nov­els with a starred review in Book­list, two Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Awards, and was cho­sen as a TD Cana­da Book Week Author in 2015