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An important work: Lord Dubs reviews 'Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad'

‘Mum and dad’: Ludwick and Mirjam at the beach | Image courtesy of Daniel Finkelstein

3 min read

An awesomely researched tale of displacement, new beginnings and the collective trauma suffered by Jews, Lord Finkelstein has made an important contribution to the history of central and eastern Europe

Daniel Finkelstein says in his introduction: “It’s the story of how my family took a journey which ended happily in Hendon eating crusty bread rolls with butter in the Tesco café near the M1 but on the way took a detour through hell.”

In describing this “detour through hell”, the author has made an important contribution to the history of central and eastern Europe in the middle of the last century. Set against the background of the rise of the Nazis, the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and how some of his family suffered under the Soviets, it is at times almost too painful to read. 

The research that went into this book is awesome. Finkelstein’s is surely one of the best accounts of what happened to the Jews of central Europe. 

His paternal grandfather was aware from early on of the threat of the Nazis but believed that logic and democratic discussion was the best way to combat this threat. He assembled an archive of documents and press cuttings about the Nazis which was later to prove invaluable to both the British and Americans. He moved the archive from Germany to Amsterdam believing it would be safe there, however the Dutch government felt that the presence of the archive would prejudice the country’s neutrality and so he took what he could to safety elsewhere. Eventually the archives formed the beginnings of the Wiener Library which to this day is an important resource for studies on the holocaust and Nazism.

It is at times almost too painful to read

In the meantime some of the family were trapped as a result of the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviets. Many of the Poles were treated appallingly and some were the victims of the Katyn massacre. Some Poles ended up in Siberia and endured appalling conditions. Finkelstein’s maternal grandfather was saved when Stalin was persuaded to enlist some former members of the Polish army in the fight against the Germans. 

Although I thought of myself as fairly well informed about what happened under the Nazis, I still learned a great deal from the book. I had, for instance, been unaware of the story of the fake Paraguayan passports, used to facilitate a possible exchange of Jews for Germans held by the allies. Very little came of this except that one exchange took place and included Daniel’s grandmother. 

HSM&DThe family was extremely resourceful and determined and some of the escapes were positively miraculous. Others perished especially in Sobibor, or on the forced marches westwards towards Belsen ahead of the Soviet armies.

Daniel’s parents met in London aged 26 and 22. Between them they had already lived in 10 countries.

Ultimately the book is about displacement and new beginnings and the collective trauma suffered by the Jews of Europe, and others. That trauma, in 1951, prompted the world to create the UN Convention on Refugees to protect the displaced. 

As I read Finkelstein’s book, I couldn’t help but reflect on current legislation regarding asylum seekers and how quickly some legislators of today have forgotten.

Lord Dubs is a Labour peer

Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival
By: Daniel Finkelstein
Publisher: William Collins

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