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Mischka's War reviewed in the Financial Times

on Fri, 07/28/2017 - 11:50
Mischka Danos was able to make himself invisible if danger was in the offing, he could become totally still and unnoticeable, before silently melting away into the shadows. His third wife, the eminent historian of Soviet Russia, Sheila Fitzpatrick, witnessed it, twice, when they were confronted by muggers in the 1990s. She was amazed by how well it worked. But by then he was a past master at avoiding trouble.

Danos, a theoretical physicist, was born in Riga in 1922. Latvia was a punchbag for warring peoples during the 1940s, but he escaped conscription into the Latvian, German and Russian armies, despite being eligible for call-up every time. At the end of the war when Latvia was absorbed into the Soviet Union, Danos was in Germany, in the American sector.

Although technically a displaced person, he managed to secure a place (and comfortable digs) at Hanover University, and then at Heidelberg. His qualifications achieved, he married a German girl, set sail for New York and developed a successful career at several universities, being particularly remembered for his work on medical imaging devices.

He died in 1999. A few years later, Fitzpatrick opened a box he’d left behind. It contained his own diaries, along with his mother’s, all their long correspondence and many more documents and photographs. She could not resist trying to describe, to re-create even, the young man she never knew.

To her surprise, however, the most important character of the resultant story proves to be Olga Danos, Mischka’s long-dead mother. Endlessly resourceful, warm-hearted and generous, she managed to smuggle Jews out of the Riga ghetto, under cover of employing them under contract with the German army in her tailoring workshop. She cut seven years off her age to get to America, where she married a Japanese butler and settled in Florida. She really deserves a book of her own.

As for Mischka, the central episode of his war began in the spring of 1944, when he decided, astonishingly, to move to Germany. He explained that he’d thought the war would soon be over and the Russians would return to Riga: he wanted to continue to study physics, and Germany was considered the best place for it. Besides, he’d have a chance of getting to the west when it was all over. And so it proved. But he chose to go to Dresden.

It went well at first. The place was civilised, peaceful and beautiful. He even took a cheerful touring holiday around Germany in the winter of 1944-45. A slightly sour note is struck when Fitzpatrick mentions a letter, dated December 15 1944, from the Ministry for Armaments and War Production. It concerns his invention of “an acoustic pathfinding apparatus” and thanks Mischka for the “great interest he shows for the defence of the Third Reich”. He later claimed to have systematically sought not to have helped the German war effort, but a question-mark hovers over that episode.

Deciding it was time to leave Dresden, he held a farewell party in his lodgings on February 13 1945. His account of what followed, reproduced almost verbatim, is the central episode of this book: it is chilling, both in content and in the curious detachment of the narrator.

The first sign of trouble is that the door, which had been closed, silently falls into the room. Pretty soon, his guests realise what is happening and disperse, but a girl he has invited lives the other side of town and he decides, reluctantly that he should see her home. They scramble to a hilltop and watch as the Allied bombing intensifies. As usual, the girl is anonymous and he the hero of the hour.

“The sight is mesmerizing; I stand there hypnotized, a 20th-century Nero”. It becomes louder, hotter, closer, more terrifying. They hide in a shell hole, then take cover in a bunker. The next day they clamber over the steaming, smoking rubble of the city, confronted by unimaginable, unforgettable horrors and eventually get to her house, where he is fed and put to bed between clean sheets and — for him — it is over.

In her afterword, Fitzpatrick worries that her book might be a kind of betrayal: her researches have made even her critical of him, of his cavalier attitude to girls, his casual racial stereotyping, and what she calls his “loud silences” about the Jewish question and Nazism. She could be right.

Sadly, the loveable older man she remembers is not discernible in these pages. Danos comes across as conceited, selfish and patronising, boasting that he is “uncategorizeable”. He was never known to apologise. But his mother was terrific.

See review here

Mischka's War: A Story of Survival from War-Torn Europe to New York
Sheila Fitzpatrick
ISBN 9781788310222
Hardback, £20.00

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