HAMBURG, Germany — For years Raya Mazin’s slim memoir sat on my shelf unread, the sort of book familial duty prevents you from throwing out and emotional dread keeps you from reading. It began in 1919 in the Latvian port of Liepaja, also known as Libau, and ended in Israel nearly 96 years later. On Tuesday, I finally took the book down and read it in one sitting. Alexander Gauland, a member of the Bundestag and co-leader of Alternative for Germany (Af D), this country’s third-largest political party, had said in a weekend speech that “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in over 1,000 years of successful German history.”I needed to learn anew just what that “speck” had meant for my extended family.
Rachel Westerman — that was Raya’s birth name — was my maternal grandmother’s first cousin; their mothers, born Baskind, were sisters.
“I brought your mother a work certificate attesting that she was working and did not need to go with the rest,” the survivor told Raya.“I begged her to take the paper, but she told me: ‘I will not take it. My sister, Becka, is terrified, and we will go together.
These types of comparisons are baseless, of course.
And it is also important to remember that hunger strikes have played an important role in the struggle of political prisoners, from suffragists in America to Mahatma Gandhi in India, as a means of resisting unfair detentions and court decisions the prisoners have deemed illegal.
Her memoir recalls a happy Jewish childhood during Latvia’s independence between the wars.
When the Soviets took over in 1940 she was living in Riga, the capital, studying and acting and being wooed by a journalist and playwright named Grisha, her future husband.
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“Bye, my girl, I hope we meet again,” were his last words to Raya. Grisha’s entire family — his green-eyed mother, Bella, his older sister, her three children — were murdered in Riga “in the first days of the German occupation.”Raya’s mother, Haya, and two of her sisters, Becka and Ethel, survived a little longer. 15, 1941, they and thousands of other Jews were taken to the women’s prison in Liepaja.
From there, in the freezing cold, they were marched to a nearby beach called Skede, forced to strip to their underclothes, taken to the edge of a trench, made to strip naked, and shot in groups of 10.
Many Jews were imprisoned for political reasons, because of anti-Semitism, or because of their connections to radical or Zionist organizations (including this writer’s own great grandfather, who was imprisoned in Russia because he was a Zionist and escaped to mandatory Palestine in 1927).