Daughters of the Occupation

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.

Need More Lilith?

Sign up now for a weekly batch of Jewish feminist essays, news, events--and incredible stories and poems from 40 years of Lilith.