A Jewish family history - Living in two Baltic States

A Jewish family history – Living in two Baltic States

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Review of Last Train to Moscow

Balticworlds.com Pages 147-148

René Nyberg, a veteran Finnish diplomat and former ambassador to Moscow and Berlin, with decades of experience in the Finnish foreign service, is also a trained historian. While Nyberg grew up in a bilingual Helsinki family and received a trilingual education at the German school in Helsinki, his semi-biographical Sista tåget till Moskva [Last Train to Moscow] only recently appeared in Swedish translation, after having appeared in a number of other translations from its original Finnish.

NYBERG’S BOOK is a tour de force of the modern history of the Russian empire’s north-western borderlands, with a particular focus on the Jewish communities in Finland and Latvia, written in the form of a family biography. In the late 19th century, Nyberg’s mother Feiga’s Jewish family had moved from Orsha in Belorussia to the western parts of the Russian Empire — to Helsingfors (Helsinki) in the Grand Duchy, and Riga in the Governate of Livonia. By following the lives of his mother’s and her cousin’s families in these two cities, Nyberg produces a picture that is both personal and insightful, not only of his family, but even more so of the history of Jewish communities in two young Baltic states. Feiga, or Fanny, as she called herself, grew up in an orthodox Ashkenazi family. Her decision to marry a gentile Finn triggered violent reactions from her family, who forcibly abducted her and strongly pressured her to break the engagement. When she refused, she was entirely ostracized by her family. Her father read kaddish over her in the synagogue and arranged a shiva wake for his daughter, who was now regarded as dead. For the rest of her long life, all ties with the family were severed; a partial exception was her mother, who occasionally secretly visited her grandchildren. Until her expulsion from her family Fanny kept close contact with their cousins in Riga, capital of independent Latvia from 1918. If the small Jewish community in Finland, unique among East European Jewry, survived World War II unscathed, the Jewish community of Riga was annihilated. The title of the book, Sista tåget till Moskva refers to Fanny’s cousin Masha’s escape, literally on the last train from Riga in June 1941 on the eve of the arrival of the German troops. Her entire family that remained behind was murdered. Only in the late 1950s were the two cousins able to re-establish contact, and only in 1971 able to leave the Soviet Union.

THE HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL AWAKENING, civil war, Finnish, Estonian, and Latvian independence out of the ruins of the Russian Empire and the delicate issue of how Finland and the Baltic republics reacted differently to Soviet pressure in 1939–40 are dealt with diplomatically and empathically. Nyberg guides the reader through the background of the Grand Duchy and the Baltic provinces with minute detail and insightful analysis as to why and how the Lutheran church — to which Nyberg belongs — developed into a national and nationalizing institution in Finland, whereas in Estonia and Livonia it largely remained a German-dominated institution, loyal to the aristocratic elites. No less nuanced is Nyberg’s exposé about the small Jewish community in Finland, which in independent Finland slowly abandoned the predominant Yiddish in favor of linguistic assimilation into the Swedish language. In a clear, accessible prose Nyberg makes this relatively little-known history accessible to a general audience around the Baltic sea.

UNCHARACTERISTICALLY for a diplomat, Nyberg is outspoken and frank. Using a neologism used to describe a phenomenon among more recent immigrants to the Nordic states to characterize the actions of his grandfather and uncles, he refers to “an honor killing in 1930s Helsinki” (Ett hedersmord i 1930-talets Helsingfors). No less sensitive, Nyberg admits, is his tongue-in-cheek self-identification using a category of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws as the name of a chapter: “Mixed race of the first degree” (Mischling ersten Grades, Blandras av första graden), which, he noted, did not always go down well in the diplomatic community. “Once I made the mistake of using this definition too carelessly,” Nyberg notes. “In a meeting in Tel Aviv with the German ambassador … I said that due to my history I have no Jewish cultural background and do not perceive myself as a Jew, but that I am a typical Mischling ersten Grades. The ambassador was shocked.”(p. 22) Nyberg sardonically concludes that “Germans of today lose their head if someone diverges from the safe and generally accepted path of political correctness. This correctness is part of today’s ethics in Germany. This pertains, in particular, to Jews and everything related to Jewry.” (p. 23)

NYBERG’S BOOK IS as much an academic work as it is a biography. The references give the impression of the book being a synthesis, with Timothy Snyder’s blockbuster Bloodlands, Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, and, in particular — and somewhat surprisingly — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s partially problematic Dvesti let vmeste [Two hundred years together] the most frequently referenced literature. As a chaperone through a diverse literature in the Finnish, Swedish, Russian, German and English languages, Nyberg bridges languages and borders. Yet the book is not a synthesis, but to a significant degree a result of original research in multiple archives and languages. Unfortunately, these sources are not properly cited — at least in the Swedish edition — but mentioned in passing. The archives of the Jewish congregation in Helsinki, the archives of the Finnish Radio, the archives of the Finnish Foreign Ministry, the Bundesarchiv, the archives of the Senate of Berlin, legal records are but mentioned in passing; references to archives in Riga, Saint Petersburg and Moscow are lacking. This may be due to an editorial decision to market the book as popular history, therefore limiting the number of footnotes, but it nevertheless diminishes the value of what to a significant degree is original work. Another irritant is the inconsistency or references, provided sometimes in Latin transliteration, sometimes in Cyrillic, and then, not always correctly (alas “Ъорьа” p.254), and quotes in Russian are presented as Latvian
(p. 141, p. 254, footnote 227). The quality of the Swedish translation is otherwise excellent. Popular history in the best sense of the word, this fascinating book deserves a wide readership. 

Per A. Rudling

Research Associate at CBEES, Södertörn University
and Associate Professor, Department of History at Lund University.