Danny Finkelstein's family endured the gulag and Belsen

Hitler and Stalin ripped my family apart: After the dictators struck a pact in 1939, Danny Finkelstein’s grandfather endured the terrors of the gulag, while his mother’s family was sent to Belsen

  • When Europe was carved up by the dictators, Daniel Finkelstein’s parents and their families endured parallel hells 
  • READ MORE: How two mothers saved me from death camp 


Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad

by Daniel Finkelstein (William Collins, £21.25, 496pp)

It must be a publisher’s dream to produce a book with the title Hitler, Stalin, Mum And Dad. But this family history by The Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein is about a nightmare.

Its title is justified by the fact that his mother Mirjam — a schoolfriend of Anne Frank in Amsterdam — was a survivor of Belsen concentration camp, while his father, Ludwik, had, as a child, endured the horrors of the Soviet gulag.

A single historic event links these monstrosities and is the fulcrum of the book. This was the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, in which Hitler and Stalin carved up Eastern Europe between them.

Adolf (‘Dolu’) Finkelstein was the ‘steel king’ of Lvov, then part of Poland — and Ludwik was his son. 

Survivors: Daniel Finkelstein’s paternal grandparents, Luisa and Dolu, in 1930s Lvov. His family suffered under both Hitler and Stalin following the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939

The family were to become, as Daniel writes, ‘victim of one of the war’s greatest crimes: Stalin’s attempt to eradicate the Polish nation by murdering its elite and scattering its entire leadership . . . deported to become slave labourers. It’s a story little told, often denied and, even now, to most people, entirely unknown.’

There is a ghastly symmetry in this unforgettable epic of a book, with Daniel’s maternal grandmother and her three daughters being packed off in trains, which were themselves death traps, to Belsen, while Ludwik and his mother, Lusia, endure a similarly infernal rail journey to Siberia.

Ludwik, ten at the time, became covered with ulcers and boils from vitamin deficiency. 

A recording exists of Daniel’s father — played on the BBC recently — describing how these were known as ‘Soviet visas’, and had stayed on his body for years afterwards.

Dolu’s health was broken down by continued interrogation by the NKVD.

As Daniel records, in deadpan style: ‘The object was to prove Dolu guilty of “strengthening the might of capitalist Poland”. Something that was not hard, because he absolutely was guilty of strengthening the might of capitalist Poland.’

Somehow, he and his family survived, becoming part of the relatively small number of Poles whom Stalin agreed to ‘release’ at the end of the war, in a tortuous journey to the UK via Iran (then, as Persia, part of the British sphere).

But the British government, at the administrative level, was far from enthusiastic about the arrangement. 

The author tells the story of how his family became  ‘victim of one of the war’s greatest crimes’. The crime in question is ‘Stalin’s attempt to eradicate the Polish nation by murdering its elite and scattering its entire leadership . . . deported to become slave labourers.’ It is a story that is little told, even today 

Daniel records an extraordinary diplomatic telegram: ‘To put matters brutally, if these Poles die in Russia the war effort will not be affected. If they . . . pass into Persia, we, unlike the Russians, will not be able to allow them to die and our war effort will be gravely impaired.’

Winston Churchill, eventually, took a different view.

The survival of the author’s mother was even more in doubt: she, her two sisters and their own mother, Margarethe (‘Grete’), were in Belsen as typhoid and starvation culled the inmates. 

Daniel describes finding in his mother’s papers, after she died, the recipes that Grete had written out on scraps of paper while in Belsen. As he explains: ‘The more the inmates of Belsen starved, the more they talked about food, dreamt about food, even wrote about food.’

Daniel’s mother and aunts survived, not because of the ultimate liberation of Belsen by the British, but through an extraordinary scheme in which, thanks to the efforts of Grete’s husband, Alfred Wiener — who had been in New York on anti-Nazi work when the Reich overran the Netherlands — they had obtained forged Paraguayan passports. 

But Grete perished days after she brought her daughters out to freedom in Switzerland.


Yet they had actually been fortunate to have been sent to Belsen: almost all of the other Jewish families in their street in Amsterdam were gassed at Auschwitz or Sobibor: that was the fate of Grete’s only sister, Trude, and her family.

Daniel’s mother and aunts survived Belsen, one of Hitler’s concentration camps. Almost all of the other Jewish families in their street in Amsterdam were gassed at Auschwitz or Sobibor

Daniel’s parents met when Mirjam was 22 and Ludwik 26, in a meeting of a Jewish youth organisation in Seymour Place, London.

By then they had lived, between them, in ten countries, before finding a permanent home and security in Britain, and producing three brilliant children: Daniel’s brother, Anthony, was knighted as this country’s chief scientific adviser on national security and his sister, Tamara, is at the apex of the civil service, as a permanent secretary.

The author himself is a member of the House of Lords, as a Conservative life peer. And, as he writes of the three children of Ludwik and Mirjam: ‘How could any of us think that politics didn’t matter?

‘Politics had murdered my grandmother and dozens of other members of my family . . . politics had almost starved my mother to death and frozen my father in the Siberian wastelands . . . politics had stolen my parents’ youth . . . it had robbed them of their education and murdered their school friends.’

Still, it perplexes me that Daniel says he needed to write this book because ‘although what happened to my parents isn’t about to happen to me’, it ‘absolutely could’ happen to his own children.

That is, in the England where, as he writes of his own childhood: ‘We were brought up . . . going camping with the 7th Hendon Scout Troop . . . learning about British kings and queens; having Mum read us Paddington and Winnie-the-Pooh.’

But then his grandfather, Alfred, had been among the very first to warn publicly about the threat (‘a mighty anti-Semitic storm’) to the Jews in Germany — in 1919, before anyone had heard of Adolf Hitler.

With such a family history, who would not feel as Daniel does?

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