Tucked alongside a 2011 interview in a magazine for American expats in Italy is a photograph of Marina Jarre standing on a beach at dusk. Her silvery hair blends in with the cold, unfocused sky, which is itself reflected in a steely sea. I wonder if the photo is the one she describes in her book, on the Baltic coast after a long drive with her son Pietro: “I walked as an old woman toward the water’s edge, where harmless, milky little waves broke. The picture shows me with a slight grimace on my face.”
Jarre was born in Latvia to an Italian mother and a Latvian Jewish father. Shortly before the Second World War, her parents divorced and Jarre was sent to live with her maternal grandmother in Piedmont, Italy. In the meantime, after the Soviet army ordered the mass deportation of Jewish religious and political leaders to the Siberian gulags, the Nazis’ arrival forced Jewish citizens first into the Riga ghetto, and then to their deaths. Jarre never saw her father again. He was murdered, alongside Jarre’s six-year-old half-sister and an unspeakable number of other Latvian Jews, during the Rumbula massacre of 1941.
“My Latvia,” writes Jarre, “my country that extended around me as a child, in forests, swamps, lakes, and silvery beaches,” had been obscured behind a “wall of refusal and fears.” After sixty years, Jarre faced this darkest shadow, tracing her paternal line—the Gersoni family—and reassembling the neglected history of the Latvian Jews during the Holocaust. First published in 2003 and now translated for the first time into English, Return to Latvia alternates between her personal search for closure and the fragmented story of one of the largest mass executions of the Second World War. Jarre writes not as a historian, but as a deeply affected writer grappling with her guilt. But she’s not alone. It is her adult son, Pietro, who matter-of-factly insists on their making the trip to Latvia in the first place. His emotional distance makes him the perfect guide through the underworld—he keeps them moving, even when Jarre freezes, shellshocked at the weight of their undertaking. “His picture-taking invariably brought me back to tranquility,” she writes, “to a feeling that I was visiting, as an adult.”
The author and her son wander purposefully but without aim through the streets of a Riga that she hardly recognizes. Describing ordinary scenes of people drinking, laughing, begging, and shopping in the public square, she reassures herself: “I’m in Riga, I’m an Italian tourist.” This mental discipline is a way of anesthetizing herself to the pain of being in that “alien city” where her father was killed. Despite the book’s subject, Jarre and Pietro are warm, charming companions who, beyond being bound by familial love, also clearly like one another. It’s a pleasure to be in their company.
We never stay long in the present, in Riga and its surroundings—Jarre regularly veers away toward childhood tableaus, historical accounts, or letters from distant relatives when the tension becomes too much. She spends almost the entire book holding her guilt at bay, taking in scenes as a writer does, describing the light and the trees and the people. Now and then she is overcome with a strong desire to lie down, and move no further.
“We read about lives lost and are often given the numbers, but these stories are repeated every day, and the repetition appears endless, irremediable,” wrote Judith Butler, on our inability to see the numbers of the dead as “grievable” human beings. Jarre refuses to cite the number (or estimate) of Jewish lives lost. Saying those numbers “contributes to rendering events abstract,” she argues, “taking away their flesh and blood and screams and blood and death rattles and blood.” A number would transform the Rumbula massacre into “an event described, not a reality lived.” She hesitates even to form an image of what happened, citing a character in one of her previous novels:
“Only the witness can tell of this horror. And we, and I, can’t write about it because this thing, this thing can’t be invented. So no novels, no films, no commemorations, nothing at all. Only they, only those who survived have the right to bear witness. If they can. This thing can’t be narrated, it can’t tolerate literary expression; the extermination can’t be told, words refuse, words become livid, words seek refuge in silence.”
As Theodor Adorno writes, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Jarre echoes: “To tell is to betray.”
“There were no signs” to Rumbula. Road signs were removed during the war to confuse the occupiers and never restored. But, Jarre implies, the lack of signposting to the site of the massacre says a lot about Latvia’s relationship to it. With Pietro’s insistence, they keep searching, while Jarre notes, “I felt suddenly tired and besides, I was sure we would never find the place.” I’m captive to her trepidation, to her fear of finding that burial ground and forming an image that will haunt her forever. Early in the book she writes about immediately dispelling her thoughts of her father’s death—that as soon as she begins to form these thoughts (maybe he was ill, maybe he felt old, maybe it was snowing), she cuts them off: “I don’t know, I mustn’t, I’ll never know.”
What is most troubling for Jarre throughout the book is how, during the war, young Latvians in civilian clothes with red-and-white armbands “dragged Jews to police headquarters” according to orders or information given by those who “wanted a house, a shop, revenge.” In many cases, the people they turned in were their own neighbors. In the texts and testimonies she cites, the Latvian Jews “appear to have been more stunned by the unexpected rancor of their fellow citizens than by the treatment inflicted by the German occupiers.” With a shaky hand, she lifts the lid on the pot of unspeakable shame, not only the Latvians’, but her own survivor’s guilt: “I felt again the painful, profound, and tortuous, if momentary, unease of having betrayed my father.”
A long mid-section composed almost exclusively of Jarre’s and her sister’s letters to their mother brings the author’s guilt into the heart of the story—in the letters, her father is usually called “that man,” if mentioned at all. Then, turning away from her personal narrative, she writes an equally long segment on Latvia’s Nazi collusion. The author’s patchwork style sometimes leaves parts of the story before we can fully grasp them, but Ann Goldstein gracefully captures Jarre’s alternation of warmth and indignation, of poignant observation and buried regret—the breadth of a most human writer. We should be glad to have Goldstein as Jarre’s conduit into the anglophone world, and I hope to see more of her translations as Jarre’s extensive bibliography is rediscovered.
I previously lauded Jarre for covering so much “geographical, linguistic, and temporal ground” in her earlier memoir, Distant Fathers. There, she navigated the world in Russian, English, and the German of her early childhood, darting back and forth between the present and the past, Italy and Latvia. “Had I had a premonition of this new trip,” she asks herself, “when I ended [that] book with the words ‘perpetually revise’”? Return to Latvia embodies this same style of revision, only this time Jarre’s personal history is tangled in the history of the Second World War, itself a perpetual loop of memorialization and willful forgetfulness. We might already know the ending, but that doesn’t make it less harrowing. Jarre makes the case for unearthing the story anyway, her eloquent prose tempered by this rough, incommunicable sense of horror.
Apart from having a story to tell, Return to Latvia is a memoir with real questions about shared history and atrocity. How can we look for the truth when no one will speak it? How can we speak it when we do not have the right? Can we forgive those who were complicit? Can we forgive ourselves? Jarre’s final howl is written with clarity and calm, but without the protective distance she clung to in the book’s beginning. Mother and son arrive at Rumbula almost by chance, when Pietro spots a small monument on the roadside. Its diminutiveness seems to underscore how, regardless of the scale of the atrocity or the number of victims, horror can go so easily unnoticed. Jarre stands before the memorial stone and cries and asks—in the German of her childhood—for her father’s forgiveness.
Return to Latvia by Marina Jarre, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (New Vessel Press, 2023)
© 2023 by Hannah Weber. All rights reserved.