Following in his mother’s footsteps

Viimeinen juna Moskovaan

Magazine IR, 16.11.2017

Finnish diplomat’s story of memories about the mental power, courage, vitality and ability to survive

Review by Rudita Kalpina, a writer and historian

A book of a comparatively small size with the title “The last train to Moscow” (“Pēdējais vilciens uz Maskavu”) on the cover of which there is a widely interpretable photography would probably not draw my attention among other new books in the book store (for the original book and for the translation into Russian a different cover photo was used – the photo of the cousin of writer’s mother which has much bigger force of attraction).

In the society where just a narrow circle of professionals are interested in foreign policy, also the name of the author René Nyberg does not say anything. I admitted he is one from the Brussels bureaucrats’ tribes, if the book in which “history is introduced through the personal view” is advised by the politician and diplomat Andris Piebalgs.

Yet, the irony disappears from the first pages in which the author reveals tragic relations among the closest relatives in his mother’s Fanny Tukacier family in Helsinki connected with her origin. About the fact that his mother is a Jew and had married a Finnish Swede Bruno in 1937 against her father’s will and therefore was expelled from her parents’ family in a way which is compared to honor murder (the family proclaimed her ritually dead and she was “deleted” from that life) René born in 1946 got to know only at the end of 50-ties when he was a teenager and it was a very big shock for him. This impact was so big that after he had ended his successful diplomatic carrier in Finland’s diplomatic service, in the second half of his life he started tracing the fate of his mother’s kin looking for reasons and explanations of separation from the closest relatives which are rooted in the history of Eastern European Jews.

Respect of The Tukacier family living in Helsinki towards the dogmatic traditions of Judaism in the second half of 30ties caused turns of relationship rather characteristic for tragicomedy and to read about the passion of such a caliber is exciting also nowadays. This quick, businesslike restrained but precise story could be especially close to hearts of Latvian readers as one of the branches of the family described in the book found its way to Riga at the beginning of the 20th century (the other family branches settled in Russia, America and Finland).

While reading René Nyberg’s book it is possible not only to learn in a compact way about the history of Jews and Judaism in the western part of Russia, Baltics, Finland and Sweden but also to experience a return. Namely, being again in that warmly sparkling atmosphere of Riga in 30ties in the environment of  educated and rich Jews which I got acquainted with  in the book by Valentina Freimane ” Goodbye, Atlantida!”. Also in the photos one can see beautiful people satisfied with life. After several years majority of them will be killed in the “final solution” of Nazis. Yet, there are some who are destined to survive by jumping in the last train going in the direction of Russia in the end of June 1941. They experience war time hardship in Stalinist Soviet Union and return in the post-war Riga.

Nyberg has dedicated this book to his mother, father and aunt – mother’s cousin Masha – admiring mental power, courage, vitality and ability to survive of both women due to the parental denial and exclusion as well as in the circumstances of physical and spiritual cage caused by totalitarian regime. While reading about the life of Masha and her husband Jozef Jugman (a musician educated in pre-war Berlin) after 1945 means meeting with the soviet Riga atmosphere, community of musicians, relations between Latvians, Russians and Jews so well recognizable for a part of readers . It is interesting that in three soviet decades it was absolutely clear for Masha that you do not need to join the communist party because “there is nothing to do with this criminal system”. “In devil’s world you cannot defeat the devil.”  The Jugmans know that their country is Israel and finally they get there but do not stay.

After having read the book by Valentina Freimane I eagerly wanted to know how her life in Soviet Latvia went further but in this work lives of the family members are described up to nowadays including also restoration of contacts between relatives living in Riga and Helsinki at the end of 50ties.

While writing the book Nyberg has used also studies of historians published in Latvian as well as memories of contemporaries and literary works on this topic. Yet, references to the work “Nākotnes melnraksti. Latvia 1948-1955” seems to be quite confusing. There are also some mistakes, for example, that Bolsheviks added Latgale to Latvia or the stories taken from the manuscript of The Black book (“Melnā grāmata”) prepared in 1948 by the Stalinist propaganda people Erenburg and Grosman, for example, that soon after beginning of German occupation a bunch of men threw down children from the roof of six-storey house on Gertrudes street.  It would have been useful if any local historian had read the translation.

One would also need an epilogue in which a reader could get to know something more about the author – once the supporter of the restoration of independence of the Baltic States and still an active speaker of political thought in the Baltic Sea region.

The book by René Nyberg was translated by Anete Kona and published by publishing house Jumava. Price of the book 8.98 euro.