Uncovering the past, finding new purpose

Shelly Sanders (BA ’86) shares how discovering her family history gave her new direction for the future

Before excavating my family’s repressed history, I had no idea why my grandmother was born in Siberia, no idea that I had dozens of relations in Latvia and no idea that one act of defiance led to my existence. Old photographs became the impetus for my research and while they tugged me back to Riga, Latvia, where my roots were planted, they also nudged me forward, helping me understand why I’ve become the person I am, as well as my purpose for the future.

Three revelations changed everything. First, the director of the Jews in Latvia Museum, explained that my great-grandfather, Max Talan, was involved in the Workers’ Revolution, a march through Riga on January 13, 1905, that left 70 people dead. Max was exiled to Siberia because of his participation. He married my great-grandmother Sophie so she could travel with him. That’s why my grandmother was born in Siberia.

Pride surged through me, knowing my great-grandfather was a rebel. And I was enthralled by my great-grandparents’ love story, how devoted they must have been to each other for Sophie to intentionally marry a political exile.

The second disclosure came from an archivist at the State Archives of Latvia, based on information I’d sent earlier. She’d found 26 relatives in Riga, all of whom were murdered in the Holocaust.

I was riven with shock and gratitude as I scoured identity papers, recognizing faces I’d seen in my grandmother’s photos — cousins, aunts and uncles, who were amongst the 93,000 Latvian Jews murdered in World War II. Then, it hit me: a devastating exile saved my family. I was born because my great-grandparents were exiled to Siberia. It was eye opening and tragic all at once.

My final discovery came in Riga’s Rumbula forest, where these 26 relatives were murdered. As I took in the scale of the mass graves and thought about how they’d died without dignity, without their names etched in stone, my heart stirred with grief. At that moment, I knew my purpose: to live a Jewish life, to speak out against anti-Semitism and to give a voice to those whose lives were extinguished far too soon.

Shelly Sanders

Shelly Sanders (BA 86)

Daughters of the occupation book cover