What did you do in the war, darling? Judith Armstrong
Sheila Fitzpatrick’s extensive contribution to the history of Soviet Russia well deserves the acclaim it has received. Perhaps not so widely known are her volumes of memoir: My Father’s Daughter (2010), an account of the life and times of historian and dissident Brian Fitzpatrick, and A Spy in the Archives (2012), more an instance of mistaken identity than genuine espionage, but still an absorbing account of what it was like to do postgraduate research in 1960s Moscow.
Now a third piece of life-writing has appeared, Mischka’s War, arising from Fitzpatrick’s (second) marriage to Mischka Danos, whose pick-up line when he found himself, aged 67, seated next to a younger woman in an aeroplane in 1989 was a polite query regarding her Mischka’s War: A European Odyssey By Sheila Fitzpatrick MUP, 313pp, $34.99 unplaceable accent. He, however, admitted only to coming from “the Baltics” — the “middle one”. Nevertheless, these coy beginnings led to an extremely successful marriage, Danos’s third, that lasted 10 years before Misha, as Fitzpatrick calls him, succumbed to a stroke.
Her decision to write about him was triggered by the opening of a box of diaries, documents, correspondence and photographs belonging to Misha and his mother, Olga. These dated from the late 1930s to the early 50s, by which time mother and son had become displaced persons in Germany, both trying separately to immigrate to the US. Fitzpatrick began to catalogue and translate the papers, then to interview family and friends, and finally to write what is not a memoir, because it dwells not on their years together, but on the piecing together of Misha’s life in Latvia, Germany and finally the US before she met him.
This mission was complicated by Misha’s quirky temperament. By nature he came at things obliquely, while loyalty to those he loved could affect his ability to see clearly. Would it be disloyal on her part, wondered his widow, to use the techniques of the professional historian to ferret out secrets that strong feelings had urged him to let lie? He “didn’t do detachment”. Fitzpatrick, in contrast, comes to see that she is detached even about herself, acknowledging in her introduction the inevitable tension between wifely reminiscence and historical objectivity. Is it possible for a “search for knowledge” to be also an “offering of love”, she asks, without quite grasping that to recognise a problem is not necessarily to overcome it.
The story itself is a saga. In the early 1940s the Danos family — Olga and her three sons — were living in Riga, she supporting them all by working in the fashion industry while the boys, Arpad, Mischka and Jan, studied. Latvia, previously under Soviet jurisdiction, had fallen to the Germans soon after the beginning of World War II; life for everyone had become harried