Interview'History's terrible wave crashed down on two happy families'

Caught between Hitler and Stalin, one family’s miraculous tale of survival

In ‘Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad,’ journalist and politician Daniel Finkelstein tells of his forebears’ separate grim escapes from gulags and Nazi camps before settling in the UK

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

  • Adolf 'Dolu' Finkelstein with Lusia Finkelstein in Lwow, in the mid-1930s. (Finkelstein Family Collection)
    Adolf 'Dolu' Finkelstein with Lusia Finkelstein in Lwow, in the mid-1930s. (Finkelstein Family Collection)
  • Daniel Finkelstein, author of 'Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad.' (Richard Cannon)
    Daniel Finkelstein, author of 'Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad.' (Richard Cannon)
  • Daniel Finkelstein's grandmother, Grete (left), and her sister Trude in 1919. (Finkelstein Family Collection)
    Daniel Finkelstein's grandmother, Grete (left), and her sister Trude in 1919. (Finkelstein Family Collection)
  • An udated photo of Alfred Wiener in his study. (Wiener Holocaust Library)
    An udated photo of Alfred Wiener in his study. (Wiener Holocaust Library)
  • Lusia and Ludwik Finkelstein, Daniel Finkelstein's grandmother and father, in 1932. (Finkelstein Family Collection)
    Lusia and Ludwik Finkelstein, Daniel Finkelstein's grandmother and father, in 1932. (Finkelstein Family Collection)
  • Ludwik (left) and Dolu Finkelstein, Daniel Finkelstein's father and grandfather, in 1939. (Finkelstein Family Collection)
    Ludwik (left) and Dolu Finkelstein, Daniel Finkelstein's father and grandfather, in 1939. (Finkelstein Family Collection)
  • Daniel Finkelstein's grandparents Dolu and Lusia Finkelstein, with his father, Ludwik, in April 1945. (Finkelstein Family Collection)
    Daniel Finkelstein's grandparents Dolu and Lusia Finkelstein, with his father, Ludwik, in April 1945. (Finkelstein Family Collection)

LONDON — “This is a story of love and murder,” British journalist and politician Daniel Finkelstein writes of his new book. “A story of how the great forces of history crashed down in a terrible wave on two happy families.”

Those waves — Nazism and Stalinism, the two most destructive movements of the 20th century — wrought near-unimaginable suffering on Finkelstein’s parents and grandparents.

But they did not overwhelm them.

“Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival” is a grim tale of roundups and arrests, gulags and concentration camps, hunger and fear.

It is also a beautifully written account of how the families of Finkelstein’s parents — Mirjam and Ludwik — survived the fate Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin had assigned to them, a fate that claimed the lives of millions of others.

However, Finkelstein, a columnist for The Times newspaper and a Conservative member of the House of Lords, doesn’t believe his family’s story is simply history. Instead, he believes, it has a contemporary relevance. It is one that highlights both the dangers posed by the populist assault on liberal values over the past decade and the consequences — seen graphically today in Ukraine — of Russia’s failure to reckon with Stalin’s legacy.

Finkelstein’s grandfathers were impressive men. A fiercely patriotic German Jew, Alfred Wiener can lay claim to having been one of the first intellectuals to sound the alarm about the rise of antisemitism after World War I. “A mighty antisemitic storm has broken over us,” he wrote in his 1919 tract, “Prelude to Pogroms?”

An undated photo of Alfred Wiener in his study. (Wiener Holocaust Library)

Working for the main German Jewish communal body throughout the 1920s, he accurately predicted the danger posed by the Nazi party, then still very much a fringe movement. Under Alfred’s guidance, in 1929, the Büro Wilhelmstrasse was secretly established to monitor the party, its propaganda and leadership.

Alfred believed in the power of truth and evidence to combat antisemitism and the Nazis. His work helped to put Julius Streicher, the notorious, Jew-hating editor of Der Stürmer, behind bars for two months in 1929, while Alfred later played a pivotal role in the Bern Trial, which led to the Swiss courts declaring the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” a fake. And Alfred took his case directly to the people, hauling a suitcase of Nazi propaganda around Germany, addressing meetings in villages and towns and trying to awaken the middle class to the threat Hitler posed. Alfred’s work was a “necessary but not sufficient” counter to the Nazis and the conspiratorial mindset that underpinned their worldview, Finkelstein believes.

Daniel Finkelstein, author of ‘Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad.’ (Richard Cannon)

After Alfred left Germany in 1933 — traveling first to the Netherlands, then to Britain in 1939 and the US in 1940 — his now-renamed Jewish Central Information Office continued to meticulously track the Nazis’ activities. During World War II, Alfred’s files became, one of the heads of British wartime intelligence said, “by far the most useful of the outside sources of information available to us.” The Nuremberg and Eichmann trials were among the countless postwar occasions on which Alfred’s archives yielded up their evidence of Nazi genocide. Today, they form the basis of London’s Wiener Holocaust Library.

Ludwik (left) and Dolu Finkelstein, Daniel Finkelstein’s father and grandfather, in 1939. (Finkelstein Family Collection)

Adolf “Dolu” Finkelstein — Ludwik’s father — was similarly accomplished. The heir to a mighty iron and steel business, Dolu served in the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI. When he returned to the family’s hometown — the then-Polish city of Lwów (previously named Lemberg, now named Lviv) — after the war, he found it bankrupt, badly damaged by the fighting, and fiercely divided between its Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian citizens. But Dolu was determined to help rebuild the city — and prospered as he did so. By the early 1930s, when he topped the poll in elections to Lwów City Council, the expansion of Dolu’s business had earned him the nickname “The Iron King.” On the council, Finkelstein pioneered programs to help the unemployed and homeless. With his dream of a modern, liberal, multi-ethnic Poland — in which Jews would find a comfortable home — Dolu also worked to combat the growing menace of antisemitism on university campuses.

Nonetheless, at the heart of Finkelstein’s story are two remarkable women.

“I was interested in the extent to which the book ends up being dominated by my grandmothers and by their personal strength, particularly given the extraordinary nature of their husbands,” Finkelstein told The Times of Israel.

With her PhD in economics — a rare distinction for a woman in the early 1920s — Alfred’s wife, Margarete, was easily her husband’s intellectual equal and became his invaluable partner and support. When Alfred departed for London in September 1939, Grete and their children Mirjam, Ruth and Eva, together with her sister, Trude, and brother-in-law, Jan, remained in the Netherlands. Why Alfred didn’t take his wife and daughters with him to London is, writes Finkelstein, “a mystery our family has puzzled over for years.” The couple’s primary concern, letters suggest, was not to disturb the happy and stable life their children enjoyed in Amsterdam, Many Jews also naturally assumed that the Netherlands’ neutrality would protect them in the coming war.

However, stripped of their German citizenship in August 1939 and financially strained by the burden of supporting Alfred’s work in London, the family’s situation became increasingly perilous. Alfred’s desperate efforts in the spring of 1940 to secure them visas to travel to Britain were ultimately in vain. The letter from the British Embassy informing Grete that she and the girls had been granted visas arrived on May 6, 1940, the very day the Germans invaded.

Daniel Finkelstein’s grandmother, Grete (left), and her sister Trude in 1919. (Finkelstein Family Collection)

For the next three years, Grete and her children were caught in the ever-tightening vise to which the Nazis subjected Jews. Money remained tight: Grete sold the family heirlooms and her husband’s stamp collection before taking an administrative role working for the Jewish Council, a position for which she was grossly overqualified. For a time, Grete’s work kept her family safe from deportation, but, eventually and inevitably, their turn came on June 20, 1943.

Initially, the family was shipped to the Westerbork transit camp — “run-down, rat-infested and overcrowded” — from where Trude, Jan and their son, Fritz, were sent to Sobibor less than a month later. Grete and her daughters, however, were initially held back by the Nazis as part of Himmler’s effort to identify Jews who might be exchanged for cash, armaments or Germans interned in Allied countries.

Margarete ‘Grete’ Wiener, wife of Alfred Wiener and grandmother of Daniel Finkelstein, in the late 1920s. (Finkelstein Family Collection)

Finkelstein had long known that his mother’s life had been saved by the possession of a Paraguayan passport. But how the family, which had no connections to the South American state, had obtained the passports is part of the “extraordinary chain of relationships, coincidences, inventiveness and bravery” which Finkelstein’s research slowly unraveled during the writing of the book. It is one that draws together Alfred’s continuing efforts to rescue his family, friendships he had forged during the Protocols case a decade previously, and a secret cell of Polish diplomats, the Ładoś Group, who battled to save Jews by purchasing documents from an attorney who served as the Paraguayan consul in Bern.

The eventual exchange in which Grete and her children were included in January 1945 involved a mere 136 Jews. Indeed, overall, only a few thousand Jews were rescued in these kinds of swaps during the war. Moreover, the family had had to withstand a year of cold, hunger and interminable roll calls at Bergen-Belsen. During this period, Grete, who was possibly suffering from typhus, starved herself in order to feed her children. And, despite being so weak that she had been barely able to leave her bunk for nearly two months, Grete also managed to lead her daughters through the medical examination required by the Nazis, who didn’t want any of their hostages to die en route to the exchange. It was, writes Finkelstein, “a supreme moment of courage and fortitude, the greatest Grete had shown in those five years, and she had shown many.” Days later, shortly after the Wieners had crossed the border to Switzerland, Grete died. (The girls were later reunited with their father in New York).

Lusia and Ludwik Finkelstein, Daniel Finkelstein’s grandmother and father, in 1932. (Finkelstein Family Collection)

Similar courage and fortitude were displayed by the other central protagonist in Finkelstein’s book: his father’s mother, Lusia. Clever and tough, she, too, had been separated from her husband in the early stages of the war. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, under which Hitler and Stalin had secretly agreed to carve up Poland, saw Lwów occupied by the Soviets. As a member of the Polish elite, which Stalin was determined to destroy, Dolu was detained in April 1940, interrogated for months, and found guilty in absentia of being a “socially dangerous element.” In freezing temperatures, he was then transported 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) to a gulag on the edge of the Arctic Circle, where he was to serve his eight-year sentence. It was a brutal existence, with Dolu initially reduced to serving as a packhorse, hauling felled trees through a nearby forest.

Lusia and Ludwik, meanwhile, fared little better. As part of the Soviets’ plan to smash Poland and suppress its people, they were exiled to a state farm in Siberia. It was, Lusia, later recalled, “an island of hunger and death.” Existing on small rations of unsifted flour, she made bricks from cow dung by day and slept in a cowshed by night. The winter — when she and Ludwik shared a small room in a freezing shack with four others — was worse still.

But, all the while, Lusia watched and protected Ludwik like a hawk. And, despite their both being malnourished and covered in lice, she found the strength to educate her son, teaching him Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” from memory, as well as instructing him in the plays of Frederich Schiller. “On the farm, Lusia, always mentally tough, became a warrior,” writes Finkelstein. “Her spirit was incredible. A certain imperiousness, always present in her personality, gave her a natural authority which even the Soviet administrators might bend to.”

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941 forced Stalin to offer an “amnesty” to the Poles he had imprisoned and exiled. It won Dolu, Lusia and Ludwik their freedom and, believes Finkelstein, almost certainly saved their lives. Eventually, they were reunited. But, by the cruelest of ironies, Operation Barbarossa also led to the deaths of most of their family back in Lwów, which now fell into the hands of the Nazis and their allies.

Mirjam and Ludwik Finkelstein, circa 2000. (Finkelstein Family Collection)

Finkelstein terms his father’s story, and that of Stalin’s effort to annihilate the Polish nation, “one that history has half hidden.” It is, he writes, “little told, often denied … [and], to most people, entirely unknown.” The silence over the Soviets’ terrible crimes in WWII has had enduring consequences. “There has never been a reckoning over what they did,” he writes. “They have never been forced to see what they did as shameful. It has allowed Vladimir Putin to write his own version of Russian and Ukrainian history, and that in turn has helped him justify, at least to himself, the latest war against the people of my father’s city.”

By contrast, Finkelstein’s family carved out a comfortable, successful and unashamedly suburban existence for themselves in postwar Britain. Mirjam and Ludwik met in 1956, married a year later and went on to have three children, whom they raised in Hendon, north London. Ludwik remained close to Lusia, who lived nearby, visiting her every morning on his way to City University, where he was a professor. Mirjam became a math teacher and later a Holocaust educator. She told her story to groups of young people, leading politicians and television documentary-makers.

Having endured the murderous impact of totalitarianism, the Finkelstein family unsurprisingly developed a keen appreciation for Britain’s “quiet institutions” and “stable state.” As Lusia frequently put it: “While the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, we are safe in Hendon Central.”

‘Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad,’ by Daniel Finkelstein. (Courtesy)

But the past decade has seen a rising populist tide in Western democracies that Finkelstein finds deeply troubling. Along with a desire to preserve his mother and father’s wartime stories, he felt the moment had come for “a reminder of the consequences of abandoning liberal democratic norms in favor of a kind of rhetoric about elites and the will of the people, something that was happening on the left and on the right.” Hard-left rhetoric about international Zionist conspiracies and far-right talk of the power of “globalists” have echoes of the conspiracy theories which his grandfather Alfred fought throughout the interwar years, Finkelstein says.

His family’s experience has undoubtedly played a significant role in forging Finkelstein’s own liberal Conservative politics. Beyond his belief in the importance of protecting and promoting human rights internationally and the rights of refugees, immigrants and asylum-seekers, it has also shaped an inclusive and generous approach to politics familiar to those who regularly read his weekly newspaper columns.

“It made me a strong believer in moderation, stability, the rule of law, pluralism, liberal democracy, gentle progress, tolerance towards other people [and]… a sense of proportion,” he says.

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