Daughters of the Occupation: A Novel of WWII

Written by Shelly Sanders
Review by Carrie Callaghan

In Riga, Latvia, in the 1940s, Miriam’s young family is caught between the buffeting waves of first a Soviet invasion and then a German takeover. Antisemitism dogs them at nearly every step, first when the Soviets expel them from their comfortable middle-class home and then when the Nazis begin to menace the local Jewish population, smearing them as Bolsheviks. Miriam’s husband had insisted that they flee Latvia, but Miriam fears for her older parents and doesn’t want to leave her beloved country. It is, of course, a fateful decision.

Meanwhile, 35 years later, Miriam’s granddaughter Sarah is reeling from the early death of her mother, Ilana. The only solace Sarah can imagine is a reconciliation with her stiff grandmother, from whom Ilana had been estranged. When Sarah imposes herself upon Miriam in the old woman’s isolation, Sarah learns not only that she has Jewish blood, but that her grandmother had another child, one whose whereabouts no one knows.

While in the 1940s Miriam struggles to keep her family and herself alive amidst impending genocide, in 1975 Sarah tries to reconstruct the past by making a dangerous voyage to Soviet-controlled Latvia. Each woman faces harrowing dangers in this page-turning novel, and their journey back to one another is touching.

Any dual-timeline novel invites comparison between the protagonists, and in this case, while both stories are compelling, Sarah’s motivations sometimes feel flimsy and undeveloped. Miriam’s more traditional quest to survive (based on the real experiences of survivor Frida Michelson) is easier to believe than Sarah’s somewhat naïve quest to explore her family roots. But readers eager to learn more about an underexplored WWII narrative will be gratified by Daughters of the Occupation.