All Roads Lead to Antisemitism

In ‘Two Roads Home,’ British author Daniel Finkelstein details the horrors the Nazis and Soviets inflicted upon his family, but is he too passive about modern anti-Jewish hatred?

Daniel Finkelstein’s extraordinary new book, “Two Roads Home: Hitler, Stalin, and the Miraculous Survival of My Family” is an incredibly absorbing read about the Finklestein family, who suffered heinously at the hands of the Nazis and the Soviets. Yet readers may feel perplexed by the author’s strangely dispassionate recital of the harrowing episodes that the Nazis and Soviets inflicted upon his loved ones; many of whom died in concentration camps.  Finkelstein seems ruled by his need to keep himself in check; almost as if he is afraid to offend us.  We long to hear him mourn for the catastrophe that has befallen him; as well as the tragedy that has happened to the Jewish people at large, but he is unable to do so. His passivity sometimes disturbs us.

Finkelstein was born in 1962 and is married and the father of three sons.  He lives in a comfortable suburb near London where he attends a Reform synagogue, read economics at the London School of Economics, and gained a master’s degree in computer systems analysis and design at the City University of London.  He served for a time as a key advisor for Prime Minister John Major and has enjoyed a thriving career in journalism.

Also, he writes political columns for The Times of London, and “he Jewish Chronicle.  He joined the Conservative Party in 1992 after deciding he was more center-right than center-left, but has a reputation for a calm demeanor and for making efforts to see merit in other people’s points of view.  He claims he is a monarchist and enjoys the majesty of royal rituals.  But the reader senses a groundswell of unacknowledged anger and rage lying beneath his cool exterior.

Finkelstein once described himself as lucky enough to live a “happy, stable, safe, reasonably prosperous life in the suburbs” of London where a few years ago he celebrated his 50th birthday.  At the party, he uttered these words: “I’m grateful for one thing.  By the time they were my age, my parents and grandparents had lost everything they had.  Their country, their home, their property.  They were forced to start again in a foreign land and a foreign language.  We live here in peace, and we don’t stay up at night fearing we will be woken by a knock at the door.  We don’t fear our children will be sent to fight in a faraway war.  We don’t fear arrest or exile…”


Recent events have shaken Finkelstein who admits he no longer is certain about the fate of liberal democracies around the world which he believes are the only environment where Jews like himself have a chance to thrive.

Ironically, Finkelstein’s nervousness is reminiscent of the feelings his maternal grandfather Alfred Wiener had back in Germany in 1920. His grandfather Wiener served valiantly in the First World War and returned to Germany sensing something was amiss.  He learned there had been a coup in Berlin led by Wolfgang von Sapp who was the head of the Fatherland Party.  He and his followers had taken over government buildings wearing swastikas and causing the Cabinet to flee.  Wiener attempted to speak to Wolfgang von Sapp directly about the irrationality of his hatred, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.  The coup failed, but Alfred Wiener understood immediately its gravity and durability.

He saw how these men were under the grip of conspiracy theories that convinced them Jews were the root of Germany’s troubles.  Finkelstein credits Alfred Wiener with recognizing before almost anyone else the dangers Jews would eventually face.  Alfred Wiener spent the next two decades accumulating information about the Nazi movement and it’s growing influence, while still clinging to hope he could remain a proud German Jew.  He spent years trying to convince ordinary Germans about the dangers of antisemitism to no avail.

Finkelstein’s maternal grandmother, Grete, was the daughter of a successful businessman, and an intellectual in her own right.  The couple married and had three daughters; the author’s mother was their youngest child.  His maternal grandparents made a brief trip to Palestine but came home quickly, convinced it was nothing more than a utopian dream.  When Hitler rose to power, Wiener fled with his family to Holland.  He left his wife and girls there and left for England, and then New York where he played a crucial role in helping the Allies understand the Nazi mindset.  He suffered several nervous collapses while in New York, since Hitler soon invaded Holland and his wife and three daughters ended up in Bergen-Belsen. The three girls, one of which would become the author’s wife, survived, but their mother didn’t.

They endured years of horror in captivity and only escaped by a combination of extreme luck and fate.  They could have been killed at any time, as were their friends and relatives. Wiener tried desperately to secure their release.  Finkelstein reveals this to us slowly; almost as if he is afraid to overwhelm us.  He wants the story of his family and their survival to be a triumphant one rather than one stuck in tragedy. He points out how his parents were lovely and optimistic people and swears to us that no shadow hovered over his family. claiming that they were focused on the future. But we don’t believe him. It’s all too harrowing.

His grandfather, Alfred Wiener, immersed himself in Holocaust studies after the war and became a full-fledged Zionist. His collection of information formed the basis for the Wiener Holocaust Library, which is the world’s leading center of documentation about the Nazis.  It was a vital resource for the Nuremburg trials.

Like all books about the Holocaust, this one has unimaginable scenes of deprivation that defy the imagination.  There are stories of starvation, freezing, the screams of children, and the endless horror of being so close to death.  In a moment of unusual vulnerability, Finkelstein writes “Politics had murdered my grandmother, and dozens of other members of my family.  Politics had exiled my grandfather and stolen his precious German citizenship.  Politics had starved my mother and frozen my father in the Siberian wastelands.  Politics had sent my other grandfather to pull logs like a packhorse, and put my aunt to work as a forced laborer.  Politics had stolen every brick of property they had, every book, every piece of cutlery.  Politics had stolen my parents’ youth, and it had killed their teachers, it had robbed them of their education and murdered their schoolfriends.”

We wait for Finkelstein to lash out at the unfairness, or speculate about the pervasive nature of antisemitism, but he steers clear of such landmines.  The unbearable lightness of his being seems out of sync with the ravaging stories he tells us.

Finkelstein speaks of his father, Ludwik, who was born in Lviv which was then Poland and is now Ukraine.  His father eventually became a professor of measurement and instrumentation at City University of London.  His father was not religious, but found comfort in Jewish learning, particularly studying the progressive rabbinate of 19th century Warsaw. Finkelstein’s paternal grandfather, Dolu, was the only child of a prosperous family and a patriotic hero of the Great War.

In 1939, after Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland, The Soviets sent Dolu to Siberia, and his wife and son Ludwik, the author’s father, to Kazakhstan where his mother struggled to keep him from dying from starvation and freezing temperatures. His mother tried to keep his mind sharp, teaching him poetry and instructing him in the plays of Friedrich Schiller. Ludwik eventually made it to London, where he met the author’s mother Mirjam at a B’nai B’rith gathering.

Daniel Finkelstein has worked hard to make a life for himself in London, but like his grandfather Alfred Wiener, echoes of the same hostile sentiment his grandfather faced now surround him.  Antisemitism in England is at an all time high, and celebrities like Jeremy Corbyn and Roger Waters of the rock band Pink Floyd openly flaunt their distaste for the Jews and Israel in large forums thousands cheer them on. The left-wing progressive party in England has become a safe haven for antisemites.  It feels as if Finkelstein has mired his response to what is happening in moderation, which is only successful when things aren’t spiraling out of control.

It may not be right for me to expect more from Daniel Finkelstein, but I do. He has played an exemplary lifelong role as a model citizen, but he also seems to be a modified court jester of sorts, enthused that his fellow Brits will allow him to fraternize among them. But history has taught us how quickly that can change.  It’s no time to be afraid to rock the boat. I understand his timidity; I suffer from the same paranoia and trepidation that accompanies living a successful Jewish life lived mostly amidst Gentiles. It’s clear that what occurred to his loved ones scarred him irrevocably, and now there are echoes of it in life in his beloved Britain. But if Jews have learned at all, we can’t allow the current xenophobia to morph into something unstoppable again. Never again.

(Doubleday, Sept. 19. You can purchase the book here.)


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Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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