Riga, Latvia, 1940. The Soviets occupied the city of Riga and confiscated Miriam Talan’s home because she and her husband Max were Jewish. True to Soviet governance, they also appropriated Max’s business, all of his family’s assets, and left the Talans with nothing but their lives. Then came the Nazis.
Award Winning novelist, Shelly Sanders, delivers a gripping story, inspired by her grandmother’s survival of the barbarism that engulfed Europe during WWII. In her novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE OCCUPATION (HarperCollins, May 2022), three generations of Talan women become entangled in a web of secrets, deceit, danger, and intrigue.
Miriam, having lost everything, was not about to lose her children, so she entrusted the safety of her daughter Ilana and son Monya to a Christian family until after the war. Eventually Ilana returned to her mother but circumstances were such that her brother Monya disappeared. Thirty years later, Miriam’s granddaughter Sarah uncovered a family secret, that she had an uncle Monya, and he may still be alive in Latvia. She decided to find him.
There are two threads to this story, one takes place in 1940’s Riga and the other in 1970’s America and Riga. Sanders deftly flips between the two time-lines as she shadows Miriam through the horrors of the Holocaust, and thirty years later trails Sarah, as she navigates her way through the Soviets’ dispiriting bureaucracy, in search of her uncle.
In order to survive, Miriam had to hide her faith from the Nazis, and pray for divine intervention. For her it came in the form of a devout Christian family who risked their lives to hide Miriam. When asked why they took such a dangerous risk, their reply was, “If we do not help you, we would be committing a sin that could never be atoned.” Stunned by the answer, in light of the fact that she had seen Latvians and Germans wearing crosses who delighted in torturing and murdering Jews, Miriam nevertheless welcomed the Latvian family’s life-saving kindness. In Riga, faith alone was not a guarantee of civility, morality, or human kindness.
Fast forward thirty years, Sarah visited Riga but had to hide the fact that she was searching for her long-lost uncle, because in the USSR everything and everyone was suspect as having nefarious motives.
Hitler and Stalin at first were allies, and then adversaries, but they shared a common enemy, the Jews. The former destroyed their bodies, the latter imprisoned their souls. As a result of Miriam’s quest for her uncle Monya she learned how inhumane, humans could be. She also discovered that for her Latvian grandparents, like all Jews at the time, living a lie was prerequisite to remaining alive.
Sanders has done a creditable job of portraying the Jewish dilemma throughout the ages, which is, how to live in a world where no country wants them to stay and where there is no place for them to go. But with grace and grit Jews have survived all of their adversaries.
Despite the obstacles strewn in her path, Sarah learned ‘truths’ one which she first heard from her father and later validated by experience, “You can’t always control what happens. It’s how you react which matters.” In time, Sarah learned the enduring wisdom of her father’s ‘truth.’