Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: the title of Daniel Finkelstein’s book does not do justice to the impressive breadth of its scope. For this is both a memoir embracing several generations of two families tossed about in the worst that history has to offer and a scholarly account of the events shaping the lives of Europe’s Jews in the years before and during the Second World War. It is also a meditation on the failure of the West to confront the Nazis’ plans for the Final Solution. There are many outstanding Holocaust memoirs. What makes his book so exceptional is the knowledge Finkelstein brings to the subject and the skill with which he weaves together personal narratives and questions that are as relevant today as they were in the 1930s.
Dolu Finkelstein, Daniel’s paternal grandfather, came from Lwów in eastern Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). His family were suppliers of steel and iron and believed in liberal, multiethnic societies in which Jews could play a full role. Daniel’s father, Ludwik, was almost ten when the Germans invaded Poland. Under the terms of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the country was divided between the Nazis and the Soviet Union. Lwów was quickly absorbed into the Soviet Union. Politicians, Church leaders and army officers were arrested, along with ‘socially undesirable’ people, many soon to be murdered in Katyn and elsewhere. Mass deportations to Siberia began. Ludwik and his mother, Lusia, were dispatched to a state farm, where, starving, filthy and freezing, they were kept barely alive on parcels of food sent by relatives. Dolu disappeared.
Daniel’s mother, Mirjam Wiener, was in Amsterdam with her mother, Grete, and two sisters when the war began. They had been relocated there from Germany by their father, Alfred, who, having foreseen the catastrophe advancing on the Jews, had spent the 1930s collecting information about the Nazis and