Two Roads Home: Hitler, Stal­in, and the Mirac­u­lous Sur­vival of My Family

By – September 18, 2023

In this book, one fam­i­ly faces two forms of evil: the Ger­mans and the Sovi­ets. Yet despite the heart-wrench­ing expe­ri­ences that Daniel Finkelstein’s par­ents endured — their shat­tered fam­i­lies, their forced star­va­tion, their tor­tur­ous work and treat­ment — they were able to cre­ate lives of love and suc­cess in a new world.

Two Roads Home is a tes­ta­ment to the strength and per­se­ver­ance of the Euro­pean Jews caught in the nets of both Nazi and Sovi­et ter­ror. Writ­ten by Finkel­stein, a polit­i­cal colum­nist for the Times of Lon­don, the book blends metic­u­lous research with ten­der fam­i­ly feelings.

Finkel­stein is the grand­son of Dr. Alfred Wein­er, the founder of the world’s old­est Holo­caust archive. He opens this book with a sear­ing epi­graph from Wein­er: I am pre­pared to for­get, as long as every­one else remembers.” 

Despite its descrip­tions of incred­i­ble suf­fer­ing, Two Roads Home is uplift­ing and deeply sat­is­fy­ing. Finkelstein’s research relies on numer­ous sources: a diary writ­ten in Bergen-Belsen, let­ters sent to Siberia, and per­son­al tes­ti­mo­ny, among many oth­ers. He care­ful­ly traces his par­ents’ indi­vid­ual, and very dif­fer­ent, expe­ri­ences of the war before they met and formed a fam­i­ly. His mater­nal grand­fa­ther was a Ger­man Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al leader who was able to relo­cate his fam­i­ly to Ams­ter­dam when there was still time. But their safe­ty was tem­po­rary: Finkelstein’s grand­moth­er and their young daugh­ters, includ­ing his moth­er Miri­am, were caught and sent to Bergen-Belsen.

Finkelstein’s father’s fam­i­ly was Pol­ish and, before the war, pros­per­ous. When Stal­in took con­trol, his grand­fa­ther was sent to Siberia, while his moth­er and grand­moth­er were deport­ed to Kaza­khstan, where they lived in an ani­mal sta­ble in freez­ing con­di­tions and worked almost beyond endurance.

Told in acces­si­ble seg­ments that alter­nate between his par­ents’ sto­ries, the nar­ra­tive shows us how the two coped with the destruc­tion of all they held dear, and how they mirac­u­lous­ly man­aged to hang on and come out whole. Finkel­stein offers us a ful­ly con­ceived, three-dimen­sion­al por­trait not only of their per­son­ae, but also of the cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, and social forces that shaped who they became.

In an age of so much con­fu­sion and obfus­ca­tion, we are for­tu­nate to have a book with a clear voice that is so com­mit­ted to truth-telling. Pro­fes­sion­al Holo­caust schol­ars and gen­er­al read­ers alike will find much to learn from it.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions

In this sear­ing mem­oir, Daniel Finkel­stein, a polit­i­cal colum­nist for The Times of Lon­don, recounts the wrench­ing his­to­ry that near­ly exter­mi­nat­ed both his mother’s fam­i­ly in Nazi Ger­many and his father’s fam­i­ly in Stal­in­ist Rus­sia before his par­ents ever met. The author com­bines his­tor­i­cal records with per­son­al tes­ti­mo­ny, sur­viv­ing let­ters, and a fam­i­ly diary writ­ten in Bergen-Belsen, as well as anoth­er writ­ten on a Sovi­et col­lec­tive farm.

The two sto­ries are seam­less­ly inter­wo­ven. Finkelstein’s mater­nal grand­fa­ther, Dr. Alfred Wiener, a Ger­man intel­lec­tu­al, warned ear­ly on of the dan­ger to Jews in Ger­many. In 1934, he moved his fam­i­ly to safe­ty” in Ams­ter­dam, while he relo­cat­ed his cen­ter for Nazi intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing to Lon­don. Trapped, his wife and three daugh­ters (the author’s moth­er was Mir­jam, the youngest) were deport­ed to West­er­bork and then Bergen-Belsen. The author’s pater­nal grand­par­ents, who enjoyed a sophis­ti­cat­ed, afflu­ent life and were civic lead­ers in Lvov, Poland, were deport­ed — his father to Siberia, and his wife and son (the author’s father) to Kaza­khstan, where they starved and froze in a hut they built using cow dung and tat­tered pieces of paper.” The author depicts the bru­tal­i­ty of Stalin’s slave labor on the icy Kaza­kh Steppe in stun­ning, gran­u­lar detail.

Two Roads Home is an epic por­tray­al of two hap­py fam­i­lies that were uproot­ed and near­ly mur­dered. Their sur­vival is a tes­ta­ment to their inge­nu­ity, brav­ery, and resilience. This tour-de-force his­tor­i­cal mem­oir illu­mi­nates how quick­ly even the most intel­li­gent, suc­cess­ful, and polit­i­cal­ly savvy indi­vid­u­als can be vic­tim­ized by anti­semitism, and may serve as a warn­ing for read­ers of today.