Mir­jam Finkel­stein

Coura­geous Holo­caust sur­vivor who told her story with elo­quence, warmth and in­tegrity

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

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

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