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Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Heart of Our Century

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Part history, part autobiography, WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK tells the tragic story of the Baltic nations before, during, and after World War II. Personal stories of the survival or destruction of Modris Eksteins's family members lend an intimate dimension to this vast narrative of those millions who have surged back and forth across the lowlands bordering the Baltic Sea. The Part history, part autobiography, WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK tells the tragic story of the Baltic nations before, during, and after World War II. Personal stories of the survival or destruction of Modris Eksteins's family members lend an intimate dimension to this vast narrative of those millions who have surged back and forth across the lowlands bordering the Baltic Sea. The immense cataclysm of World War II devastated the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, sending many of their inhabitants to the ends of the earth. WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK belongs in the great tradition of books that redefine our understanding of history, like J. R. Huizinga's THE WANING OF THE MIDDLE AGES and Jacob Burckhardt's THE RENAISSANCE IN ITALY. Eksteins's two-pronged narrative is a haunting portrait of national loss and the struggle of a displaced family caught in the maw of history.


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Part history, part autobiography, WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK tells the tragic story of the Baltic nations before, during, and after World War II. Personal stories of the survival or destruction of Modris Eksteins's family members lend an intimate dimension to this vast narrative of those millions who have surged back and forth across the lowlands bordering the Baltic Sea. The Part history, part autobiography, WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK tells the tragic story of the Baltic nations before, during, and after World War II. Personal stories of the survival or destruction of Modris Eksteins's family members lend an intimate dimension to this vast narrative of those millions who have surged back and forth across the lowlands bordering the Baltic Sea. The immense cataclysm of World War II devastated the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, sending many of their inhabitants to the ends of the earth. WALKING SINCE DAYBREAK belongs in the great tradition of books that redefine our understanding of history, like J. R. Huizinga's THE WANING OF THE MIDDLE AGES and Jacob Burckhardt's THE RENAISSANCE IN ITALY. Eksteins's two-pronged narrative is a haunting portrait of national loss and the struggle of a displaced family caught in the maw of history.

30 review for Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Heart of Our Century

  1. 4 out of 5

    John

    Ekstein offers four distinct narratives that seem entirely unrelated: the ancient history of Latvia, his family history, the present-day story or the former Soviet Union and post-war Eastern Europe. In doing so, he offers compelling, well-written prose that tails off into poetry at times. At his best, Eksteins fuses intellectual social commentary (always subtle, never preachy) with symbolic story-telling. I consider it to be the greatest history book ever.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Christiane Alsop

    One of the best history books I ever read. It follows different strands that reflect the complexity of the history of the Baltic states and its agents. Quote:"But how does one tell a tale that ends before it begins, that swirls in centrifugal eddies of malice, where the margin is by definition the middle, the victim the agent, where the loser stands front and center?"

  3. 5 out of 5

    Terry Savill

    In a bid to discover and understand what my Latvian mother and her mother (both deceased) endured during and after WW2, I have sought out and read a number of biographies and histories dealing with the Balts and, more particularly, those Latvians who fled their homeland ahead of the invading Russians. Together with 'Walking Since Daybreak, these books include the harrowing 'A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile' by Agate Nesaule, the uplifting 'The Rings of My Tree: A Latvian Wom In a bid to discover and understand what my Latvian mother and her mother (both deceased) endured during and after WW2, I have sought out and read a number of biographies and histories dealing with the Balts and, more particularly, those Latvians who fled their homeland ahead of the invading Russians. Together with 'Walking Since Daybreak, these books include the harrowing 'A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile' by Agate Nesaule, the uplifting 'The Rings of My Tree: A Latvian Woman's Journey'-the story of Mirdza Vaselnieks Labrencis as passionately told by Jane E. Cunningham and the informative and fact-filled 'DP: Europe's Displaced Persons 1945-1951' by Mark Wyman. I now understand the dark places my grandma visited as she wailed in her sleep, and the reluctance for talk of my mother's father, my grandfather, who was forcibly conscripted into the Red Army, and was unable to flee with his family. TO BE CONTINUED

  4. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    Not my type of book. I don't like history. I had to skim over several areas, BUT am glad I read it. My parents were from Latvia and I learned so much about the area and the struggles they endured, that they never wanted to talk about.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    I would rate the first half of this book a 3, and the second half a 4. I found the first part of this book very difficult to get through. This was in part due to the fact that I thought the book was to be about Eastern Europe during World War II, and for the first half of the book I was reading about events in Eastern Europe from the 1880's through the 1920's, and about Canada from the 1960's, 70's, and 80's. I understand that the author's aim here is to show that the events of the war itself ca I would rate the first half of this book a 3, and the second half a 4. I found the first part of this book very difficult to get through. This was in part due to the fact that I thought the book was to be about Eastern Europe during World War II, and for the first half of the book I was reading about events in Eastern Europe from the 1880's through the 1920's, and about Canada from the 1960's, 70's, and 80's. I understand that the author's aim here is to show that the events of the war itself cannot be divorced from what came before, and heavily influenced what came after, but it honestly reads like someone with ADD. There is little to no flow or continuity from one section to the next. It's 1880's Latvia, then we are suddenly in 1988 Canada! Then, with no transition, we are back in Latvia in the 1900's, then back in Canada in the 1960's. I found this very hard to follow. In spite of this early difficulty, I will say that the writing is lovely, and is much less dry than I was expecting for a history. Also, a little more than halfway through the book, the time jumps become smaller and less jarring. This was a very interesting subject, but I was not a personal fan of the style. I also found myself thinking on multiple occasions, that the author's family experience (he drew from the experiences of his parents and from his own experience) was fascinating, and that I might have liked the book better had it been a memoir.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Robin Compton

    Difficult to follow as the story leapt through time. Not very much about his families actual experience.

  7. 5 out of 5

    TroTro

    Pretty good read, but I wanted more from it. It is Latvian history, family history, and memoir.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen McRae

    This was an excellent history of the baltic states. It was well written and very readable. The author recounted his own family's struggle during WW11 and their eventual emigration as DP's to Canada.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ushan

    Modris Ekšteins is a professor of history at the University of Toronto. He originally wanted to write a book about 1945: since the Cold War is over, the questions left unresolved at the end of World War II come to the forefront of politics (for example, the Iranian President Ahmadinejad was of course right - Israel was created because of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, which happened a few years before; ever since, this part of the Middle East has been in a state of war, alternating between hot a Modris Ekšteins is a professor of history at the University of Toronto. He originally wanted to write a book about 1945: since the Cold War is over, the questions left unresolved at the end of World War II come to the forefront of politics (for example, the Iranian President Ahmadinejad was of course right - Israel was created because of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, which happened a few years before; ever since, this part of the Middle East has been in a state of war, alternating between hot and cold, because of what happened in Europe in 1933-1945). Ekšteins looked for some viewpoint from which to observe this momentous event, and turned to his own family. Modris Ekšteins was born in Riga in 1943 to Latvian parents. His father was a Baptist minister from a fish merchant's family who fought for Latvian independence in his youth; his mother came from a peasant family. When the Soviets came in 1940, they arrested and executed his uncle for belonging to a nationalist organization. In all, 35 to 40 thousand Latvians were executed or deported by the Soviet Union in 1940-1941, most of them on the night of June 14, 1941. Ekšteins doesn't know, why his father wasn't among them, since he was a class enemy who fought the Russians in his youth; it is possible that if it hadn't been for the German invasion of the Soviet Union, there would be another wave of arrests. In 1944, as the Soviets were returning, Rūdolfs Ekšteins didn't want to try his fate, so he and his family left Latvia. They first went to Estonia, trying to find some fisherman who could take them to Sweden; when they couldn't find any, they went to Lübeck, spent several years in the D.P. camps, and finally emigrated to Canada, moving first to cold Winnipeg (in 1949, around the time many Latvian farmers were deported to equally cold Siberia) and then to Toronto. Modris Ekšteins grew up and became a historian, specializing in the connection between war and culture in the twentieth century; his previous book was about the relationship between modernism in art and the proto-fascist ideas expressed during World War I. He tries to explain, how the Ekšteins family got there - how all of Europe got there - and ends up retelling the history of Latvia (a country hardly any Canadians have heard about), the history of World War II, and the history of Latvia during World War II. The author's great-grandmother, a domestic servant, was made pregnant by a German baron and forced to marry another serf; her revenge ultimately caused the Germans' lands to be divided up among Latvian farmers and the Germans themselves to be expelled from the Baltic.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Graeme Stuart Waymark

    I know this is a good history book and I can understand why many have given it 4 or 5 stars. I do not intend to challenge any of them, but praise them for their strong interest in history which I share with them and in particular the warring conflicts of the 19 th and 20 th Centuries where the peoples of Europe and Russia in particular the Balkans states underwent such massive upheavals, destruction, displacement and heinous acts akin to barbarism such that writing of the events, causes and effe I know this is a good history book and I can understand why many have given it 4 or 5 stars. I do not intend to challenge any of them, but praise them for their strong interest in history which I share with them and in particular the warring conflicts of the 19 th and 20 th Centuries where the peoples of Europe and Russia in particular the Balkans states underwent such massive upheavals, destruction, displacement and heinous acts akin to barbarism such that writing of the events, causes and effects is a monumental challenge for any author. To choose a narrator, viewpoint and perspective that offers the reader cohesion, interest and intrigue - to me, requires a form of fiction, incorporating a plot and dimensions of sequence enabling the author to treat his readers as an audience to be entertained rather than to be lectured. Here is the switch, where some readers can chose to follow the lecture and learn darn good historical facts based on truths known by the author thru his own family. The only liberty we the readers are allowed is that of conjecture, where the Professor would use the same tool in a classroom and describe why. I skimmed and skipped too much for me to be able to give a full and meaningful review, so I am giving 2 stars because I did not enjoy reading and could not finish. Most importantly, is that with roles reversed and Eksteins as my professor, he would give me a deserved 'F' !

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jeanette

    The author of this book has written about his own childhood experience of walking out of Latvia during WWII as well as the history of Latvia. The structure of the book made it a difficult read. The history of Latvia was not written in a linear manner and the narrative jumped from WWI, WWII and his personal story in each chapter. Since the author is a Rhodes Scholar and a university history professor, I believe that the structure was used to emphasize particular themes of Latvian history which I The author of this book has written about his own childhood experience of walking out of Latvia during WWII as well as the history of Latvia. The structure of the book made it a difficult read. The history of Latvia was not written in a linear manner and the narrative jumped from WWI, WWII and his personal story in each chapter. Since the author is a Rhodes Scholar and a university history professor, I believe that the structure was used to emphasize particular themes of Latvian history which I do not have the historical knowledge to understand. However, what I did learn was how horrible the wars have been for the civilian populations and shocked at the horror these people experienced. I also was shocked at the blanket bombing the allies did of civilian areas of German during WWII. A member of our book club who chose this book experienced walking from Latvia to the British held area of Germany during WWII. She and her family were in the same DP (Displaced Persons) camp as the author of the book. Although I found this book a difficult read, it is one that I will remember. I gave the book three stars not for the content, but for the structure which I found difficult to read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Joyce

    Eksteins proves again with this history-cum-autobiography how creative he is as an historian and as an author. The original way in which he weaves back and forth between the narrative of the grander history and that of his own family, and back and forth between the temporal periphery of before and after the war towards the centre of the storm that is the German - indeed, European - Stunde Null is commendable indeed. One criticism: I wasn't too keen on his attempts at ending off so many of his pa Eksteins proves again with this history-cum-autobiography how creative he is as an historian and as an author. The original way in which he weaves back and forth between the narrative of the grander history and that of his own family, and back and forth between the temporal periphery of before and after the war towards the centre of the storm that is the German - indeed, European - Stunde Null is commendable indeed. One criticism: I wasn't too keen on his attempts at ending off so many of his paragraphs and his chapters with the supposed dramatic effect of short sentences. It's personal, though; I guess it just didn't work for my taste.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    I read this because I had so enjoyed "Rites of Spring" by the same author. Not quite as good, I think, partly because of the sheer difficulty of mixing straight history of World War II and a family story about his Latvian ancestor's experience before and after the war. I do have to give the book credit for educating me about the troubled history of the Baltic states, constantly being batted back and forth between Germany and Russia, but I don't think the mixed character of this book succeeded qu I read this because I had so enjoyed "Rites of Spring" by the same author. Not quite as good, I think, partly because of the sheer difficulty of mixing straight history of World War II and a family story about his Latvian ancestor's experience before and after the war. I do have to give the book credit for educating me about the troubled history of the Baltic states, constantly being batted back and forth between Germany and Russia, but I don't think the mixed character of this book succeeded quite as brilliantly as in his World War I opus, "Rites of Spring."

  14. 5 out of 5

    Shannon

    Eksteins has done it again. Brilliantly weaving the personal history of his family, going back as early as 1850, with the history of 19th and 20th century Europe, he tells the story of the Baltic Nations (particularly Latvia) in the Second World War. Chronologically, he juxtaposes times well before and well after the war in the book's start - gradually the timeline shrinks to 1945. He hits you with the totality of war in a way most history books are unable. Not as gripping as Rites of Spring for Eksteins has done it again. Brilliantly weaving the personal history of his family, going back as early as 1850, with the history of 19th and 20th century Europe, he tells the story of the Baltic Nations (particularly Latvia) in the Second World War. Chronologically, he juxtaposes times well before and well after the war in the book's start - gradually the timeline shrinks to 1945. He hits you with the totality of war in a way most history books are unable. Not as gripping as Rites of Spring for me, but well worth the read. I learned a lot.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Greg D'Avis

    I really enjoyed "Rites of Spring" some years back but didn't expect much from this -- I was pleasantly surprised. Excellent multi-pronged book, with a history of Latvia, a look at the plight of post-war displaced persons in the lands between Germany and the USSR, and a sober, thoughtful memoir. Very good and highly recommended.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Joy

    A difficult but interesting book to read. After traveling through the Baltic, this book, Baltic Revolution and Defiance (the film) have all been stark reminders of how that region came to be what it is today. Especially interested in the Anti-Allies perspective of a lot of the Europeans threatened by the WWII.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Susanne

    A subtle and moving book which weaves together 4 separate strains of Latvian history with great skill. One learns much about the years after the 2nd war, i.e. 1945-1950, the aftermath of war, with 20 million displaced persons, and also how immigrants of that time were treated in Canada.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Iben

    An insightful, personal, and, at times, devastating account of 20th century European history through the lens of the Baltic experience.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Louis A

    Amazing and heartbreaking

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Johnson

  21. 5 out of 5

    Allie

  22. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kyle

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tiia

  25. 5 out of 5

    Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez

  26. 5 out of 5

    Fred

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ross Mclean

  28. 4 out of 5

    Bev

  29. 5 out of 5

    Steve Phelps

  30. 4 out of 5

    Noah Miller

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