Family friend of Anne Frank who cheated death in the concentration camps and became a powerful witness to the Holocaust
Eleven-year-old Mirjam Wiener held the hand of her dying mother on a train bound from Bergen-Belsen to the safety of Switzerland. Suddenly, German soldiers entered their carriage and ordered them on to the snowbound siding of another concentration camp where death lay in wait after all.
Mirjam and her two sisters pleaded with the guards to let them all stay on because their mother was too ill to move. Their captors shrugged and ejected other ailing prisoners instead. The train arrived in neutral Switzerland on January 25, 1945. Having seen her girls to safety, Mirjam’s mother, Margarethe, died of starvation.
If their transportation to Switzerland as part of a prison swap was rare, the reprieve from the guards was a miracle. Mirjam Finkelstein used the gift of her extended life by honouring her mother’s memory (and that of six million other Jews who died during the war) as a powerful witness to the Holocaust — as a speaker for the Anne Frank Foundation, Holocaust Education Trust and at schools all over Britain. She would tell of her memories of her family’s friend Anne Frank, endless drills at Bergen- Belsen in the middle of the freezing night, and an encounter 50 years later with the daughter of one of Hitler’s closest advisers, Albert Speer.
Mirjam’s candour was inspired by her father, Alfred Wiener, an early opponent of the Nazis who documented their rise to power and whose work would prove to be crucial in securing convictions at the Nuremberg trials.
Wiener knew early on that the Jews would have no future in a Germany ruled by the Nazis. After Hitler seized power in 1933, he uprooted the family, including baby Mirjam, from Berlin and settled in Amsterdam in a two-bedroom house. With her sisters, Ruth and Eva, Mirjam attended the same Montessori school and Jewish Liberal Community Synagogue as Anne Frank and her sister, Margot.
In Amsterdam their father established a library of documents on the Nazis. It was recognised as a vital resource on the realities of a regime that was already perfecting the art of dissembling. In 1939 the Dutch authorities were becoming nervous about Wiener’s archive. He transferred the collection to London, where, as the Wiener Library, it would become one of the world’s most important archives on the Nazis.
Wiener eventually obtained visas so that his wife and children could join him, but they arrived as German troops were marching into Amsterdam in May 1940 — rendering them useless. Life went on. Mirjam’s prized possession was a blue scooter. Because Jews were not allowed on buses or trams, the scooter became the Wieners’ principal means of transport. “It had thick wheels and a big running board. It was my pride and joy. It became like the family Rolls-Royce.”
On her tenth birthday she received a richly illustrated book of facts and figures called De Vaderlandse Geschiedenis in een Notedop (The history of the Netherlands in a nutshell). The book came a close second to the scooter. Ten days later on June 20, 1943 German soldiers stormed into the house and shouted “Raus” (Out).
Within minutes they were in cattle trucks. They spent the next two years at Westerbork concentration camp, where every week an announcement would be made of who was being transported to Auschwitz. “Even I knew these transports were something terrible.”
Having already seen her aunt, uncle and cousins leave for Auschwitz, where they would die, Mirjam was transferred with her family to Bergen- Belsen. “What I remember most is that it was terribly cold. That and the starvation diet. And the counting. The Germans were forever counting us. Preferably in the middle of the night. Preferably involving beatings . . . Whenever we could, we went to the back of the camp with our spoons and tried to scrape the remains from the empty food barrels, which, even when they were full, had only contained watered-down turnip.”
One day, Mirjam and Ruth were standing near a different section of the camp and saw Anne Frank and her sister disembarking from a cattle truck. Ruth noted the sighting in the diary she illegally kept and preserved. It was the last they ever saw of the Franks.
Mirjam and her sisters would probably have died too had it not been for the false Paraguayan passports that their father had obtained for them. As a result, in January 1945 they were chosen for a prisoner swap with Germans held in Allied-occupied countries.
The family were ordered into a communal shower. “I didn’t understand why until later, but people were terrified. We stripped our clothes off, walked into the shower room and waited. Then water came out. It was hot water, too, the first time we’d felt that. Later we were given soup. It had actual pieces of potato in it. That, a child remembers.”
Their mother had to pretend not to be terribly ill — the Germans did not want to give up dying prisoners as this would confirm Allied suspicions about the conditions of the camps. Margarethe held herself upright to get on the train leaving Belsen, but once on it, she collapsed.
The sisters boarded a Red Cross ship for New York. They still kept their father’s First World War medals, but as they approached Ellis Island they began to worry about how the medals would be perceived. They wrapped the Iron Crescent and Iron Cross (second class) into a handkerchief and threw it out of a port window. The package plopped into the water near the Statue of Liberty.
The sisters were settled with the Days, a Quaker family in New York. Mirjam sat in tears as she heard music for the first time in years. “There was a blonde angel playing the harp. I thought I’d gone to heaven.”
In 1947 the girls moved to London to live with their father, settling in Golders Green. Mirjam studied chemistry and taught maths at Hendon Preparatory School. In 1957 she married Ludwik Finkelstein (obituary, September 2, 2011) whom she had met at a Jewish youth event and who would become a world-renowned professor of measurement and instrumentation at City University, London. The couple solved scientific puzzles for fun, such as how many cans of drink you could fit in a fridge of a particular cubic volume.
She is survived by their three children. Anthony is a professor of software engineering at the Turing Institute and the UK’s chief scientific adviser for national security; Daniel, the Lord Finkelstein, is a political columnist and associate editor of The Times and a Conservative peer; and Tamara is director-general of community care at the Department of Health. The family practised at a reform synagogue and Mirjam’s Friday night feast to usher in the Sabbath was a weekly fixture. Her chicken soup with matzo balls was the stuff of legend.
Mirjam believed that being open about the Holocaust was the best way of not visiting trauma on her own children. However, even her resilience was challenged in 2004 when she was asked to meet the daughter of Albert Speer for a Radio 4 documentary. The Nazi architect was a close friend of Hitler and many believed he escaped justice by avoiding the gallows at Nuremberg, being sentenced instead to 20 years in Spandau prison. His daughter Hilde Schramm came to America in 1952 to study and also stayed with the Days.
They met in Berlin and warmed to each other over tea and biscuits. “Hilde came across as a very sensitive and fine person. And she has obviously been much affected by her paternity. My opinion of her father is very low indeed. But it’s not her fault. She is a victim too.”
Mirjam never forgot a visit to the family home from Anne Frank’s father, Otto, in the early 1950s. She loved working with the Anne Frank Foundation in later years. When Justin Bieber was vilified in 2013 for saying that Frank “would have been a Belieber”, Finkelstein claimed that Anne would indeed have been one, because she was just a normal teenage girl preoccupied with boys. On Finkelstein’s 80th birthday, she received a parcel. It was an original edition of her treasured childhood book, The Netherlands in a Nutshell — a thank you from the Anne Frank Foundation.
She never wallowed in victimhood. When told by her son Daniel that Ronald Reagan was visiting Belsen- Bergen, she retorted: “So what, I’ve been.”
Mirjam Finkelstein, Holocaust educator, was born on June 10, 1933. She died on January 29, 2017, aged 83
This article appeared in The Times on 2 February, 2017