Courageous Holocaust survivor who told her story with eloquence, warmth and integrity
HER QUIET charm and the warmth of her personality belied the terrible experiences she had suffered at the hands of the Nazis in her youth. But Mirjam Finkelstein, who has died at the age of 83, always retained her sense of humour, her integrity, her discreet intelligence, and her love of culture.
In common with several Holocaust survivors who found the courage to meet the modern world with equanimity and a powerful story to tell, Mirjam spent many years visiting schools to talk to British schoolchildren about the Holocaust. She was one of the subjects of a new book, Survivor, by photographer Harry Borden, which features portraits of Holocaust survivors captioned with their messages. Typical of Mirjam’s modesty, hers reads: “I think of myself as a person, a wife and mother first and a survivor last.”
She was born in Berlin, one of three children of anti-fascist campaigner Alfred Wiener, whose Nazi archive would later form the basis for the Wiener Library. But after her father was called to a meeting with Hermann Go erring because of his political activities, he became anxious for his family and moved them to Amsterdam where they lived in a two-bedroom house. As a child, Mirjam played on the same streets asher friends Anne and Margot Frank: they went to the same Montessori school where, with pens poised, they all had their pictures taken. They attended the same Hebrew classes at the Jewish Liberal Community Synagogue.
Most poignantly, perhaps, the Wiener and the Frank children were all daughters of decorated officers who had fought for Germany in the First World War.
But at the outbreak of the Second World War, when Mirjam was six, her father had already left for London, where his documentary work on the Nazi regime would prove instrumental in securing convictions at the Nuremberg trials. However, the visas he had obtained for his family came too late.
On June 20, 1943. Mirjam, her mother and sisters were herded on to cattle trucks, and sent to Westerbork concentration camp, as the Franks would be. Some family members were listed on the weekly transports to Auschwitz and Mirjam recalled saying goodbye to her aunt, uncle and 14-year-old cousin Fritz. She kept a letter from that aunt promising they would meet again. They never did. The family were then sent to Bergen Belsen, where Mirjam would never forget the terrible bleak cold, the starvation, the counting of prisoners and the beatings. Largely thanks to the courage and tenacity of Mirjam’s mother who, despite extreme illness, managed to stay strong and upright in an attempt to save her children, the family was passed over several times and became part of a prisoner exchange in January, 1945. They were eventually saved by the false Paraguayan passports their father had obtained for them. Her mother survived just long enough to see the girls over the border into neutral Switzerland and safety.
The three girls boarded a Red Cross ship that took them to Ellis Island and liberation, carrying with them their father’s First World War medals, which their mother had managed to conceal throughout their imprisonment. They had been of no help to the family. And now, since the Americans feared the presence of German spies on board, they represented an existential danger. So the girls wrapped the Iron Crescent and the Iron Cross in a handkerchief and dropped them off the side of the boat — just as they passed the Statue of Liberty.
The discarding of the medals spoke powerfully to Mirjam’s son, journalist and Tory peer Lord (Daniel) Finkelstein, who described it in a moving article about his mother in the Daily Mail in 2009. “And there they lie to this day,” he wrote, “in the deep, at the foot of that great monument to freedom. When I go to New York I take care to visit them.”
His memories of his mother included her description of the blue scooter she had been given for her eighth birthday and which was her pride and joy. As they waited to board the trucks, Mirjam asked a local friend to take care of it. Of course, that scooter, “the family Rolls Royce” as she called it, was never seen again but, to her son, it expressed his mother’s experiences in the only way he could understand, as a child. As a grown man, he still loved to hear her tell the story. Mirjam’s friendship with Anne Frank, who had arrived in Belsen as Mir jams tood byt he wire, normalised for him the child-diarist into “just a little girl who lived her life and died, not as a celebrity but as part of a community now long gone.”
Reunited with their father, the family settled in London’s north-west suburb of Golders Green. Mirjam married Professor Ludwig Finkelstein, who survived a Siberian gulag to become an eminent professor of engineering, and they had three children, Anthony, Daniel and Tamara. Prof Finkelstein predeceased her. She is survived by their three children.
Mirjam Finkelstein: born June 10, 1933. Died January 28,2017