Two Roads Home: Hitler, Stalin and the Miraculous Survival of My Family
- By Daniel Finkelstein
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Paula Tarnapol Whitacre
- September 25, 2023
A harrowing account of escaping the Nazis and the Gulag.
As the Jewish year 5784 is ushered in during this Gregorian month of September 2023, most Jews around the world celebrate or not as they wish. Now go back eight decades or so to the Jewish early 5700s and the Gregorian 1930s and 1940s. European Jews — more specifically, the parents of British journalist Daniel Finkelstein — could only wonder if they would survive the next year and the one after that.
In Two Roads Home, Finkelstein writes about the dual distinct, horrific paths taken during these years by his German-born mother, Mirjam Weiner, and his Polish-born father, Ludwik Finkelstein. Home, after many twists and turns, was England, where Mirjam and Ludwik met in 1956, married, and raised three children in a quiet London suburb. Switching between chapters labeled “Dad” and “Mum,” Finkelstein recounts their stories with love and awe for what they endured as children, and with anger at the action (and inaction) of those in power who could’ve saved countless lives but didn’t.
The first five chapters take place before the war, mostly through the eyes of Mirjam. Born in Berlin in 1934, she was the youngest of three daughters of Alfred and Grete Wiener. By the early 1920s, Alfred, who considered himself a proud German and a proud Jew, had already begun documenting the Nazis’ antisemitic beliefs and aspirations. His evidence was ignored by those who might’ve stopped the Nazis early on, but his activities endangered him enough that the Wieners moved to the then-safer Netherlands in 1934.
Meanwhile, the author’s father, Ludwik, born in 1929, was the only child of the wealthy, civic-minded Adolf, nicknamed Dolu, and Lusia Finkelstein in Lwów (thanks to shifting borders, now Lviv, Ukraine). In 1938 — yes, 1938 — their construction of a new, modernist house on the city’s most prestigious street reflected their belief in the modern nation of Poland in which Jews could fully participate alongside their Gentile neighbors.
For both the Wieners and the Finkelsteins, disaster loomed.
The second and longest part of the book, naturally, is entitled “During.” We know that Finkelstein’s parents survived the war, but how? And who else survived with them? Fraught decisions and happenstance collided to create what Finkelstein calls the miracles that benefited his parents yet could’ve just as easily led to their deaths. Finkelstein counters the misperception that Jews didn’t see the threats. The problem was what to do and where to go. As he characterizes it, “The right place was unknowable, even if the need to find such a place was known.”
In the case of the Wieners, Alfred was in England in 1940 and finally, with the outbreak of the war, getting a positive reception to his documentation of Nazi atrocities. The rest of the family had the paperwork to join him but were trapped when Germany invaded the Netherlands. Some of the book’s strongest chapters describe the plight of German Jewish refugees in the Netherlands (which included the family of Anne Frank).
On her own, Grete protected her family as the situation grew more dire week by week. In 1943, they were sent to Westerbrook, the Dutch camp built for — and forcibly funded by — Jews. There, the top priority was to avoid being part of the weekly quota crammed into trains for “evacuations to the East.” Finkelstein dispenses with that euphemism: Seventy-five percent of the Netherlands’ Jews died in concentration camps, mostly Auschwitz and Sobibor.
Unlike the Wieners, the Finkelsteins’ initial enemy was Stalin. Thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939, he had free rein to fulfill his goal to eliminate an independent Poland, as Finkelstein says, “a story little told, often denied, and even now, to most people, entirely unknown.” Ludwik’s father, Dolu, one of many leading citizens ordered to report to Soviet authorities, disappeared. Ludwik and Lusia were exiled to a labor camp deep inside Russia with virtually no food, shelter, or clean water. While the Soviets did not implement the Nazis’ factory-like annihilation of Jews and others, conditions were nonetheless deadly.
As children, Mirjam and Ludwik were not fully aware of many events that allowed them to survive. Mirjam’s father’s prewar connections in Switzerland helped the family obtain papers that attested to Paraguayan citizenship. As part of a prisoner exchange, they were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp — itself a horror — and finally released. While obviously grateful, Finkelstein makes clear that “the Belsen exchange which freed my mother can be thought of as a miracle…But what happened to my mother was not really a miracle. That there were such small numbers swapped and that it happened so late, is closer to a scandal.” Throughout the war, Allied leaders either dragged their feet or actively undermined efforts to get Jews out of Europe.
For Ludwik, when Germany broke its non-aggression pact and invaded Russia in 1941, chaos ensued. The Finkelsteins received Polish certificates of nationality but were stuck in Siberia. They did not endure the usual experiences of the Holocaust era, however; their first stop out of the Soviet Union was Iran. The shifting of global alliances benefited them, but their extended family left behind in Lwów fell under Nazi control and met a bad end.
In the postwar years, as Finkelstein notes in the “After” part of the book, “almost immediately, all talk of the war and of the Holocaust stopped.” Family members adjusted because they had to. Decades later, Mirjam began sharing her story publicly, but, Finkelstein points out, “nobody invited Dad to tell his story in schools,” and the crimes committed under Stalin have never faced the same reckoning as have those committed under Hitler.
In addition to telling two riveting stories, Finkelstein makes clear why he wrote the book:
“What happened to my parents isn’t about to happen to me. It isn’t about to happen to my children. But could it? It could. Absolutely, it could.”
When I turned to the acknowledgments at the end of Two Roads Home, I discovered that I know a member of Finkelstein’s extended family. The events in the past, present, and future are a sometimes-thin but never broken thread.
Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a writer in Alexandria, Virginia. Her last known relatives who had not earlier immigrated to America left Belgium in 1939. She assumes any extended family who remained in Europe after that were murdered.