Shoah memories spur writer Daniel to seek truth and courage

DANIEL: Defeat at the polls led to an amazing job offer at The Times

ALEX ZATMAN chats to a respected Times journalist with a remarkable family history

DANIEL Finkelstein has advised a prime minister and leader of the Opposition, run for elected office, and pens influential columns daily. But the bashful journalist has a tale of family heroism that defies belief.

He is an expert political commentator, providing sharp analysis in The Times and on Newsnight, but - humbled by his family's remarkable escape from the deathly pit of Nazism - the result is a "bland politics".

His mother Mirjam Wiener went to school in Amsterdam with one of the abiding symbols of the Holocaust, Anne Frank, and his grandfather Alfred established the world's oldest institution dedicated to its study.

Daniel's family history is a parable for the surviving communities of European Jewry - incarceration, escape, safety.

But to compress the Finkelsteins' harrowing ordeal into a few choice words would be crass.

Mirjam, her sisters Ruth and Eva, and Anne and Margot Frank all attended the Amsterdam Montessori School and the Liberal Synagogue. They were all deported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

His mother was born in Berlin, but Alfred hastily relocated the family to Amsterdam after a meeting with Hermann Goering, then the commander of the Nazi Luftwaffe.

Alfred foresaw the peril that lay ahead for the Jews of Europe.

He left for London in 1939 to document Nazi atrocities while the family remained in the Netherlands. They were deported to Belsen, where the Frank family perished. That the Wieners were saved was due to ingenuity and considerable luck. Alfred acquired forged Paraguayan passports for them and they were allowed on to a train heading for Switzerland.

Talking their way out of being ejected by a stern guard, they made it to the border just hours before their mother died.

The three sisters headed for a ship to America, from where they settled in London after the war to be with their father.

Daniel, 49, said: "I've been really fortunate because lots of people don't talk about the Holocaust to their children. But my mother was always really open and ready to talk about it.

"From a young age I knew about all her experiences.

"She began to give talks to schools. When I became a journalist and began to write about these issues, I went back and did long interviews on these stories with my parents.

"I learned a lot more about them as an adult than I could have done as a child

"The one word that stands out to me when describing my mother is 'resilient'."

And his father's experience is no less breathtaking.

Ludwik Finkelstein was in Lvov, which is now in Ukraine. The city surrendered to the Soviet Red Army when both the Russians and the Germans arrived to dominate its inhabitants.

The city was a centre of Jewish culture, but the Soviets, Ukrainian militants and then the Nazis subjected the Jews to repression, degradation and murder.

While it was mainly Poles who were murdered by the Soviet security apparatus during the 1940 Katyn massacre, around 10 per cent of the victims were Jews.

Ludwik was spared, but his father was arrested and sent to the Starobilsk prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia.

The Soviets allowed Ludwik's mother to escape and the family trudged through inhospitable lands, via Iran, on to Palestine, where Ludwik heard the Jerusalem King David Hotel bomb explode in 1946.

He went on to London where he met Mirjam through B'nai B'rith.

Ludwik later went to the Northern Polytechnic Institute to study physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics. He wrote that he was "determined to justify the confidence the country has placed in me".

He worked in industry during the 1950s and in 1967 took a post at City University, where he rose to become the dean of the school of engineering and pro-vice chancellor of the university.

A dedicated Jewish intellectual, he died in August last year.

For Daniel's part, this extraordinary familial legacy has "left me with quite bland, moderate politics".

"It's not for nothing that I identify with the politics of Pinner [the north London suburb where he lives]," he explained.

"As my mother would say, 'While the Queen is safe in the palace, I'm safe in Hendon'."

His grandfather, Alfred, died in 1964 when Daniel was just one, but his endeavour has been an influence.

Daniel said: "It is interesting how much journalism there was in what he was doing.

"I'm influenced by his idea that by telling the truth you can change the world. That's an inspiring thought.

"In the leader on Marie Colvin - the Sunday Times foreign correspondent who was killed in Syria last month - I wrote that courage and truth are the strongest moral forces on the planet. That's what I believe.

"I also learned from what Alfred got wrong.

"I am - and he was - an assimilationist for Jews being part of Britain, but he was not enthusiastic about the establishment of the State of Israel whereas I am."

Brought up in Hendon, Daniel could walk to retail temple Brent Cross "without crossing the road".

The Finkelsteins were members of Hendon Reform, where he was barmitzvah and later married Nicky Connor.

"My family was unusually Reform for more than one generation," he said.

"My father had been brought up the son of assimilated Polish Jews and my mother from an assimilated German family.

"Later, though, he took an intellectual interest in Judaism.

"He was more practising than his parents but resolutely liberal. Reform Judaism was an important tenet of our upbringing - to be a reform Jew was to be no less observant than an Orthodox Jew.

"Theologically, I still subscribe strongly to a Reform idea of how Judaism develops. Jewish practice is a constant re-evaluation.

"What's the point of praying for thousands of years if we don't learn anything? That's my attitude towards homosexuality, for example."

Ludwik's interest in scholarly Judaism became a "serious part of his life".

He attended Leo Baeck College and earned a PhD on the Warsaw Rabbinical School, alongside his career as an engineer.

Now Daniel's family - his wife and three sons Sam, Aron and Isaac - are members at the Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, where Sam will soon enjoy his first call-up to read from the Torah.

He said of the monikers he gave to his children: "We had to stick with Jewish names - Madison wouldn't really work."

Daniel has carved a niche as the only one in his family to step into the political world.

"My father was always interested in public affairs," he recalled.

"We would debate any number of issues at breakfast time, and he would encourage that.

"We took The Times at home and I would start reading the sport before he came down.

"By that time I'd turn to the front to read about Watergate.

"One of the first books I ever bought was All the President's Men. Politics is one of the great loves of my life."

Daniel graduated from the London School of Economics and was a member of the short-lived Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, rising to become the chairman of the Young Social Democrats.

He was a Parliamentary candidate in the 1987 general election and one of SDP leader David Owen's closest advisers.

He denounced the merger with the Liberal Party, which became the Liberal Democrats. And after Owen resigned from frontline politics, Daniel defected to the Conservative Party.

Daniel acknowledged that he may have always truly belonged with the Conservatives, but he declared: "The Tory party was not a hospitable place for an immigrant family.

"When the SDP ran into the sand I realised I had always ended up agreeing with the Conservatives on issues. I have moderate, suburban, centre-right politics.

"I'm a strong believer in liberty under law and I have always believed it is something we should spread around the world.

"I am a great supporter of America and interventions to spread liberty."

In the early 1990s, he was director of the Social Market Foundation think-tank and in 1995 became the Conservative Party's head of policy.

But the mid-90s were uncomfortable days for the Tories.

A series of scandals and internal convulsions led to them being labelled the "Nasty Party" - which took them a decade to exorcise.

And as an adviser to then Prime Minister John Major, Daniel was there as the government imploded.

He said with alacrity: "I knew we were going to lose when I took on the job. It was a stunning thing to do to work for a prime minister and for a party in an election campaign.

"It was also a shattering feat, but not one that the party could have avoided or didn't deserve. I understood why we lost."

He went on to work for William Hague, who succeeded John Major as Conservative leader, for four "frustrating" years.

In 2001, as his boss went to the polls, Daniel contested the Harrow West seat - but was again unsuccessful. The country was still smarting from 18 years of Conservative rule and its share of the vote decreased in Harrow West with Daniel as its candidate, from 39 to 36 per cent.

He looks back on it stoically as a reprieve, a bullet dodged.

Daniel, who also writes a weekly political column for The Times, declared: "I wanted to be elected at the time, but now I'm really happy that I was not.

"I was really disappointed but had anticipated that I would lose.

"But then I got this amazing job at The Times and I've had such a great time."

To the constituents of Harrow West he may not have been electable, but Daniel's job allows him the space to speak to the nation without constraint.

Earlier on in his career, Daniel had been a trade journalist and met the-then editor of The Times Peter Stothard through his work with the Social Market Foundation. Barely two days after the election defeat, Daniel went in to see Peter with a proposal.

But he was more interested in Daniel's skills. He recalled: "He basically offered me the job of associate editor on the spot."

The last year has witnessed enormous upheaval across the globe. From the Arab Spring internationally to the furore over phone hacking at home.

The company at the centre of the hacking scandal, News International, is the parent company of The Times, but that has not stopped the newspaper from castigating the alleged perpetrators.

Daniel said: "The hacking scandal is not something The Times engaged in. Those aren't the issues we cover.

"But, obviously, the paper has had to be quite critical of the company and its handling of it.

"We had to cover the story with the integrity we expect of any other story, though it is tough when we have loyalty to the company."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph