A metaphorical summary of my book

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Holocaust Remembrance Day

René Nyberg, Riga 24 January 2019

“It is the passport that holds soul and body together”

German version

Timothy Snyder speaks about a lapidary bit of wisdom that made the rounds in occupied Lvov:

“It is the passport that holds the soul and body together.”[1]

Bertolt Brecht agrees because for him a passport was a delicate thing:

“The passport is the noblest part of a human being. It also does not appear as easily as a human being. A human being can appear in the most frivolous way and without good reason, but never a passport. There is acceptance of a passport if it is a good one, while a human being can still be so good and yet not be accepted.”[i]


My book The Last Train to Moscowis the story about my mother carrying a Finnish passport and her cousin Masha losing her Latvian passport after the Soviet annexation in the summer of 1940. Masha became a Soviet citizen against her will, but her Soviet passport saved her life because she and her husband Josef escaped Riga at the last minute on the last train. That train never reached Moscow, but took them instead to safety in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan.

My mother’s Finnish passport guaranteed her safety because Finland was never occupied; not by the Soviet Union in 1940 or 1944, nor by Germany in the years in between.

In 1941, Finland joined the Beelzebub to fight the Devil. This was the result of Stalin’s aggression in 1939. It was a gamble to gain back Vyborg and Karelia, territories lost to the Soviet Union in the Winter War.

After Hitler had dismantled Czechoslovakia in 1939 there was only one parliamentary democracy left out of many that had emerged as a result of the Great War – Finland. All the others had succumbed to the lure of autocratic rulers, Poland and Lithuania already in 1926, with Estonia and Latvia following suit in the mid-1930s. Czechoslovakia gave up without a fight after Munich.

When Stalin invited the three Baltic States to Moscow in the fall of 1939 they agreed without resistance to the demands of Moscow. The situation with Finland was different. According to Stalin’s biographer Stephen Kotkin, Stalin personally took part seven times in the negotiations with the Finns in the fall of 1939, more times than with anybody else. But to no avail. The Finnish government had a solid majority in Parliament and enjoyed strong popular support. It refused, against the advice of Marshal Mannerheim, to give in on the territorial demands of Moscow. Stalin changed tack and ordered Molotov to abuse the belofinny(White Finns) and Voroshilov to attack.

Even after becoming a brother-in-arms and practically an ally of Hitler, my mother’s Finnish passport mattered. Finland remained throughout the war a parliamentary democracy and a country ruled by law. There were no official overtures by the Germans concerning the small Finnish Jewish community, fewer than 2,000 souls, although the issue was probed occasionally. Thus, the Finnish nationals of Jewish descent served in the army fighting the Red Army together with the Germans or worked like my mother in a military hospital.

The fate of the two cousins whose fathers were born in the pale of settlement in Orsha, today a city in Belarus, is instructive. Out of six brothers, two settled in St. Petersburg, two moved to Riga, and one emigrated to New York. My maternal grandfather served in the Russian Imperial Army in Helsinki, where he was demobilized in 1903 and where he settled down to become a successful merchant. The brothers and cousins in Helsinki and Riga lost contact with the Petrograd/Leningrad relatives, but Riga and Helsinki were easy to reach and visits were frequent – until everything changed and the contact was lost.

But my father, the goywho married the beautiful daughter of the orthodox Jewish merchant, found Masha in Riga in 1957. It was Khrushchev’s thaw and the Youth Festival in Moscow. My father was an international sports functionary and Yekaterina Furtseva offered him the possibility to visit a site of his choice in the Soviet Union. My father took it upon himself to find the cousin of his wife in Riga. And he did it.

But this is not the end of the story of passports. After emigrating to Israel in 1971 and renouncing their Soviet passports, Masha and Josef moved three years later to West Berlin. In 1975, Josef and Masha became a German citizens and Josef was given a substantial German pension. Masha and Josef died carrying German passport alongside their Israeli ones. Their only daughter Lena, who was able to gain as restitution the imposing art nouveauhouse of her grandparents in Riga, applied for Latvian citizenship, which automatically was bestowed to her as she was born in Latvia. She died last year as an Israeli citizen and as a citizen of Latvia and the European Union. Her son and granddaughters also carry Latvian passports.

Passports do matter, but the decisive thing is whether the country issuing the passport can protect and defend its citizens.  +++

[1]Timothy Snyder: The Holocaust as History and Warning, 2015, p. 255.

[i]Der Paß ist der edelste Teil von einem Menschen. Er kommt auch nicht auf so einfache Weise zustand wie ein Mensch. Ein Mensch kann überall zustandkommen, auf die leichtsinnigste Art und ohne gescheiten Grund, aber ein Paß niemals. Dafür wird er auch anerkannt, wenn er gut ist, während ein Mensch noch so gut sein kann und doch nicht anerkannt wird.“ Bertolt Brecht: Flüchtlingsgespräche