A Jewish teenager views World War II from a very precarious perch—Nazi-occupied Latvia—in this quietly harrowing memoir.
Anders, a prominent chemist, was 15-years-old when the German army rolled into his hometown of Liepaja, Latvia, in 1941. Faced with the Germans’ murderous anti-Semitic policies, his middle-class Jewish parents hit upon a desperate survival strategy—his mother, Erica, would claim to be a German foundling raised by a Jewish family. The ploy didn’t save his father, who was dragged from their apartment and shot in a mass execution, but it gave Erica the provisional status of an Aryan and her two sons that of half-Jews—a gray area in the Nazi racial taxonomy that sheltered them from the worst persecution. The scheme became a cat-and-mouse game with skeptical Nazi officials; the family gleaned one temporary reprieve after another as they amassed bogus documentation of German ancestry—the author used his knowledge of chemistry to alter identity papers—always aware that one false step could lead to a rejection of their claim and consignment to a death camp. It’s a nerve-wracking saga in which life and death depend on a capricious fate, and the author tells it with an absorbing lucidity. Writing with an almost scientific detachment, he sketches vivid portraits of the people around him—Erica, whose manipulative charm saved herself and her children, is especially vibrant—and shrewdly analyzes their actions under duress. He also presents an even-handed assessment of Latvia’s collective responsibility for war crimes under German occupation—he testified at the Nuremburg Trials in 1948—and concludes that, while some collaborated in atrocities, most Latvians deplored them and many gave crucial help to Jewish neighbors, including his family. Anders’ subdued, matter-of-fact account bears witness to terror and sorrow without histrionics, and to a simple moral vision—“I met enough decent, brave, and noble Germans and Latvians during the war to be immunized against prejudice”—that resonates.
A testament of remarkable clarity and humanity, wrung from dark experience.