Life & Culture

Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad review: An epic tale of a family’s struggle

Daniel Finkelstein's family memoir manages to tell an intimate story on a grand scale


Tanya Gold speaks with journalist and politician Danny Finkelstein. Byline John Nguyen/JNVisuals 11/05/2023

Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival
By Daniel Finkelstein
William Collins £20

Before I begin this review I must declare an interest: Daniel Finkelstein is a close friend. But if you think that disqualifies me from hailing this book a masterpiece then I urge you to read it and discover it for yourself.

Certainly I don’t recall ever being quite so moved as I was by Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: A Family Memoir; I spent much of the time reading it in tears.

The story of his mother and father’s early lives under, respectively, Hitler and Stalin, it is at once an epic tale on the scale of War and Peace, an intimate portrait of his family and its traumas and a book of compelling urgency, with a vital political message at its heart.

The structure — alternating chapters telling the parallel tales of the Wieners and the Finkelsteins — reflects two separate yet similar stories, but brings home a wider point that is the book’s central thrust.

Particular and specific as his mother’s story is of domestic life under the Nazis, then in concentration camps followed by an almost absurdly unlikely release through a prisoner swap, the broader themes of the Nazis’ wanton barbarity and the Holocaust are familiar through literature, documentaries, history and education.

But his father’s story of internal exile in Siberia under the Soviets (internal in the sense that his home city of Lvov in Poland was transferred almost overnight to the Soviets) is less familiar and less often told, despite there being nothing between the brutality and criminality of the two regimes.

As Finkelstein puts it: “While interest in my mother’s story gradually increased, and what she had experienced became better understood, none of this happened to my father.

“The public interest in Stalin’s crimes didn’t come. It has never come. Nobody invited him to tell his story in schools. Nobody spoke of the Katyn murders, hardly anyone knows of the Polish deportations.

"If anyone, even now, points to the similarities between communism and fascism, it is regarded as a rather crude thing to do.”

If anything can change that, Finkelstein’s book will. There is a central message to all his writing, well described in the title of his last book: Everything in Moderation.

This one has a more finessed variation on that point: the dangers that arise when moderates refuse to see what is in front of their eyes. The danger, of course, is not just “fascism”, as is the modish cry.

As his father’s story shows, the dangers can come in various political colours.

But the subtitle — A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival — is no less important to this story. The miracle is not just their survival; we as a nation have also been the beneficiary.

Ludwik and Mirjam Finkelstein had three children and it is difficult to think of a refugee family that has repaid the country at a more elevated level.

Apart from Daniel (now a peer), Tamara has been Permanent Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since 2019 and Anthony (a knight) was Chief Scientific Adviser for National Security until 2021 and is now president of City University (in a beautiful twist, his father Ludwik was a professor at City).

This book will be read for generations as a classic, a work of truth and history but with the emotional power of the most searing novel.

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