A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II,

And the Heart of Our Century

By Modris Eksteins

Houghton Mifflin. 258 pp. $27.50

Reviewed by Thomas McGonigle

When reading or writing a book about countries like England or France, one has the feeling of entering a vast, ornate room crowded with familiar figures. But when picking up a book about a relatively obscure country such as Bulgaria, Bolivia or, as with Walking Since Daybreak, Latvia, one has a sense of trepidation -- the room will be austere and small, with maybe only a single person sitting there probably prepared to tell you either too much or adamantly rebuking you for not knowing what is obviously so important to him.

How wrong that reader would be. Modris Eksteins, a professor of history at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, has astutely and thrillingly braided together the tortured history of modern Latvia, his own personal story of being born there in 1943, caught amid the savage fighting between the Soviet and German armies, and the fate of his family as they (and countless millions) made their way to and through the refugee camps of postwar Europe, ending in their case with a happily complex life in Canada.

To suddenly be asked to name the four countries that border Latvia is to set out the problem that this book so carefully delineates: how to make present the history of an obscure country and the fate of a people that probably few in the United States are aware of. Until a year or so ago the same could be said of places like Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo. A word to the wise: Eksteins mentions in passing that in a 1994 poll of Russian military officers 49 percent of them believed that Latvia was Russia's chief enemy; a country with a population of fewer than 3 million was perceived to be the principal foe of a state with more than 150 million.

Of course, Latvia is one of the three Baltic countries caught by geographic and histori-

cal fate between the expansionist Slav and Teutonic peoples. Some might remember that the Baltic nations were independent countries first for a brief period following World War I. A few will remember Marguerite Yourcenar's haunting novella Coup de Grace set in civil-war Latvia. Other people might remember Latvia only as the site for some of the most savage Jew killings during World War II, and a couple might remember the Baltic countries as the epitome of "The Captive Nations" during the long years of the Cold War. The great and defining merit of Eksteins's book is to make all of this both vivid and deeply personal by showing exactly how history grabs a family by the scruff of the neck and hurls its members back and forth and forces them to realize that "For regret and tears there was no time, no point."

Originally Eksteins set out to analyze the events of 1945, the year he describes as standing "at the center of our century and our meaning." He initially focused on the Stunde Null ("the hour zero"), the name the Germans gave to May 1945, but he realized that within his own family's history and in the fate of Latvia was a far more important story: "If the tale is to be told, it must be told from the border, which is the new center. It must be told from the perspective of those who survived, resurrecting those who died. It must evoke the journey of us all into exile, to reach eventually those borders that have become our common home, the postmodern, multicultural, posthistorical mainstream . . . the tale must reflect the loss of authority, of history as ideal and of the author-historian as agent of that ideal. What we are left with is the intimacy not of truth but of experience."

Careful always to separate the personal from the private and not wishing to collapse the one into the other, Eksteins begins his story with the family legend of his Latvian great-grandmother, made pregnant in the mid-19th century by a German baron and settled by this man upon a farm with an Estonian husband. He explores how that family survived and barely prospered against a backdrop of history: World War I, the subsequent bloody civil war of all against all and the creation of the nation of Latvia in 1920.

Eksteins is especially good at describing the complex forces that were at work in Latvia after World War I and in relating how people became used to a horror in which one out of four buildings was burned or destroyed and "Fire became the symbol of rage. The writer Karlis Skalbe, soon a neighbor of the Vajeiks family, saw a wounded soldier who, lying in his own blood, had been set on fire by the retreating Germans."

But even this did not prepare the Latvians for what was to come during World War II, when the country was briefly occupied by the Soviets as a result of the Nazi Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Thousands of teachers, students, clergymen, civil servants and military officers were deported to be murdered within a few days in June 1940, along with other "hostile elements" such as "members of Rotary clubs and Esperanto societies, amateur radio operators and stamp collectors -- and the head of the Latvian Boy scouts."

All this was to be repeated when the Germans occupied Latvia in 1942 and again when the Russians returned in 1944 -- a history of murder upon murder upon murder and the constant piling up of historic ironies that Eksteins delights in remembering: The last commander of a battalion of Latvian soldiers defending Hitler's Chancellory in Berlin was a Latvian, and he was the translator for the German general who surrendered Berlin; the first commander of Russian-occupied Berlin was a Latvian colonel in the Red Army.

But the greatest irony is that while Latvia so far has failed to produce that one great world writer, such as Estonia's Jaan Kross or Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it has produced -- via the Latvian diaspora -- Modris Eksteins, a wonderfully complex truth teller who has with this book placed Latvia within the world's imagination. In the photo insert there is a picture of the author as a little boy sitting with his family as they are getting ready to leave the refugee camp for Canada. He is sitting on a box labeled BOOKS.

Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."