Daugh­ters of the Occu­pa­tion: A Nov­el of WWII

  • Review
By – October 1, 2023

Daugh­ters of the Occu­pa­tion is the fourth work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion by Cana­di­an jour­nal­ist and nov­el­ist Shelly Sanders. Where­as her pre­vi­ous works focused on Russ­ian Jew­ry, this lat­est nov­el explores Jew­ish life in Latvia and the Amer­i­can dias­po­ra. Although it is a work of fic­tion, it’s deeply root­ed in Sanders’s own fam­i­ly his­to­ry, and in her efforts to retrace the lost sto­ries of rel­a­tives and his­tor­i­cal events. 

The book moves between two time­lines and fol­lows three gen­er­a­tions of women from the same fam­i­ly. Half the sto­ry describes life under the Sovi­et and Nazi occu­pa­tion between 1940 and 1944, as seen through the eyes of Miri­am, a young Jew­ish woman in Riga, Latvia. The oth­er half is set three decades lat­er, in Amer­i­ca and Latvia, after Miriam’s daugh­ter pass­es away. Scared to lose her mater­nal his­to­ry, Miriam’s grand­daugh­ter Sarah tries to untan­gle the family’s secrets. She clings to her grand­moth­er, yet she can’t seem to turn up any sto­ries. With the few snip­pets of infor­ma­tion she has, she sets out on a quest that ulti­mate­ly brings her to Riga under Sovi­et rule. 

Through­out the nov­el, Sarah strug­gles to under­stand her iden­ti­ty. Accord­ing to the nar­ra­tor, ‘‘There were gap­ing holes in her mater­nal his­to­ry — fam­i­ly sto­ries, mem­o­ries, habits and tra­di­tions — that would nev­er be filled. This untold her­itage would have giv­en tex­ture to her iden­ti­ty, a vivid­ness that couldn’t be found in old pho­tos or sta­tis­tics or news­pa­per arti­cles.’’ Chap­ter by chap­ter, the secrets Miri­am has long kept hid­den begin to unrav­el. We learn about her har­row­ing expe­ri­ences, her extreme per­se­ver­ance, and her strong will to cre­ate a bet­ter future for her­self, her chil­dren, and her grand­chil­dren fol­low­ing one of the most trau­mat­ic and dev­as­tat­ing events of humankind. 

While moth­er­hood and free­dom are impor­tant themes in the book, the real sto­ry relates to the enor­mous impact of trau­ma not only on the per­son direct­ly exposed to it, but also on lat­er gen­er­a­tions. It is well estab­lished with­in clin­i­cal prac­tice and research that lat­er gen­er­a­tions often suf­fer from their ances­tors’ lived trau­mas. For exam­ple, dys­func­tion­al par­ent-child rela­tions can result in a child expe­ri­enc­ing low self-esteem or depres­sive symp­toms. It is pre­cise­ly this kind of inher­i­tance that Sanders’s char­ac­ters are up against. 

This beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed, grip­ping nov­el expos­es the lit­tle-known tragedies of the Jews in Latvia. With its emo­tion­al whirl­wind of trau­ma and sur­vival, Daugh­ters of the Occu­pa­tion may not be an easy read — but it’s def­i­nite­ly a sto­ry that will stay with read­ers long after they’ve closed the book.

Dr. Janne L. Pun­s­ki-Hooger­vorst is a Dutch-trained med­ical doc­tor, cur­rent­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Haifa as a doc­tor­al researcher on psy­chotrau­ma and post­trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der. She is also an inde­pen­dent Holo­caust researcher, focus­ing on mem­oirs and inter­gen­er­a­tional trauma.

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