Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

Hitler, Stalin, Mum & Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival

An extraordinary testimony to love and hate, this book is essential reading for our troubled present

Hitler, Stalin, Mum & Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival
Hitler, Stalin, Mum & Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival
Author: Daniel Finkelstein
ISBN-13: 978-0008483845
Publisher: William Collins
Guideline Price: £25

Three strands run through this heartbreaking family testimony. The first strand is the descent of Europe into barbarism in the second World War, which formed the backdrop to Daniel Finkelstein’s parents’ childhoods. His mother, Mirjam, was born in Berlin in 1933, the year that Hitler was appointed Chancellor. That year, her family fled to the Netherlands. Within weeks, the Reichstag had been torched, civil rights curtailed and the first wave of political arrests carried out.

The situation slowly worsened, before deteriorating sharply in 1938 with the Anschluss and the Munich Accords, which brought Jews in Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia under Nazi rule. Kristallnacht on November 9th, 1938 – when 30,000 Jews were arrested, hundreds of synagogues burned and thousands of Jewish-owned shops and businesses destroyed all over Germany – clearly signalled Hitler’s murderous intent. In May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands and by the summer of 1940, almost all of western Europe, and its Jewish population, was under Nazi control. In January 1942, at the Wannsee Conference in a suburb of Berlin, Nazi officials agreed to murder all the Jews of Europe.

To the east, in Poland, a parallel nightmare was unfolding. In August 1939, in the Treaty of Non-aggression, Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide Europe between them. Within weeks, Germany and the Soviet Union had both invaded Poland. In the eastern city of Lwow, now Lviv in western Ukraine, Finkelstein’s father, Ludwik, was approaching his tenth birthday when the Soviet political command arrived to implement Stalin’s plans for mass arrests, executions and deportations to the slave camps of the Gulag.

In the second strand of the book, Finkelstein recounts how his mother’s and father’s families were swept up separately in this murderous history. His mother and her parents left Germany for Amsterdam in 1933, recognising before most the extreme danger Hitler posed. There, on Jan van Eijckstraat, they initially enjoyed long periods of normality. His grandparents met for coffee with friends who had also fled Germany to apparent safe haven. His mother and her sisters set up a play club with their friends, the Joy and Glee Club, to organise games and competitions. Finkelstein’s accounts of how these ordinary pleasures were shattered are at times unbearable to read. Most of those his grandparents regularly met for coffee were murdered in Auschwitz. Almost all the children in the Joy and Glee Club were either interned or murdered in the death camps of Belsen, Sobibor, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.


Farther east, in Lwow, Finkelstein’s grandparents were settling into the new house they had built just over a year before, confident in their future, when the Soviets invaded. Within weeks, his father, Ludwik, and grandmother, Lusia, had been deported to a collective farm in Kazakhstan. The train carrying them east, Finkelstein recounts, contained about 1100 people spread among 16 carriages. At stops, families would pass the body of a mother or a child out of the wagon and the train would move on, leaving the corpses by the tracks.

Towards the end of this deeply moving book, Finkelstein provides an impassioned argument for why politics matters. Politics murdered his grandmother and dozens of other members of his family. Politics almost murdered his mother and her sisters in death camps that gassed millions. Politics almost froze his father to death on a collective farm. Politics sent his grandfather to a slave labour camp and exiled his other grandfather and stripped him of his citizenship. Politics stole his parents’ youth and killed their teachers and their schoolfriends.

Alongside the politics, the history and the horror, however, there is a third thread in Finkelstein’s telling. That thread is love. The book is also the stories of two women who resolved to reunite their children with their fathers and never gave up on that promise. It is a story of how Lusia, determined to educate Ludwik, would sing to him in the depths of the Kazakh winter and recite the Iliad and the Odyssey and the plays of Schiller from memory. It is a story of how his other grandmother, Grete, starved herself so that her children could live. How she exchanged letters of love with her sister and daughters amid unimaginable horror.

And, it is the story of the love that remains in the aftermath. Of the Friday evening meal that was the centre of Finkelstein’s family life with his parents and remains so today. That meal, he writes, was regarded by his mother as a triumph over Hitler. Love remains, too, in the book’s final testament. “When my parents died, they left us with each other,” he writes, “a family tied strongly together, the greatest gift they could bestow.”

Finkelstein has written a remarkable book, an extraordinary testimony to love and hate, in which the voice of every family member speaks clearly from the past. It is essential reading for our troubled present.

Ian Hughes is author of Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy