Patient readers will be richly rewarded once they get the hang of how Modris Eksteins, author of this combined history and autobiography, shies away from straightforward chronology. He moves backwards and forward through the years, presenting episodes that provide a history of Latvia, his birthplace, and of Eastern Europe and World War II. The events he describes so thoroughly are interspersed with his own life story and that of his family. The highly successful outcome of Eksteins's roving through time is a remarkable depiction of reaching 1945, when the war in Europe ended and 30 to 40 million people were homeless. He converges on 1945 as the climactic year from two vantage points: his current position as a history professor at the University of Toronto, and Russia and the Baltic States in the 1850s.
The autobiography moves in reverse to Eksteins's years as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where he earned a doctorate in history; his experiences at Upper Canada College, Toronto's elite private secondary school; his family's 1949 arrival in Canada as Displaced Persons after the Canadian government overturned its negative attitude toward newcomers; and their horrible war experiences, battered by both the Germans and the Russians, after he was born in 1943. The vivid narrative includes his great-grandmother, born in 1834; his father, a Baptist minister; and his mother, who was the key to our survival. This is a story of achievement and triumph.
The historical sections emphasize World War II, when Latvia was made a part of the Soviet Union in 1940, liberated by Germany in 1941, and re-captured by Russia in 1944. The terror of those years is detailed with shocking figures regarding the fate of Latvian Jews and Western Jews sent to Latvia. Their slaughter was the highest percentage of eradication in all of Europe. Eksteins's stress on the devastation of World War II, with its unprecedented number of deaths, contrasts with the contemporary characterization of World War II as a good war. This powerful book demonstrates that there is no such thing. ¦Dr. Morton I. Teicher is a freelance writer who is on the faculty of Walden University.