The Nazis were less harsh

Mark Mazower

  • Mischka’s War: A Story of Survival from War-Torn Europe to New York by Sheila Fitzpatrick
    I.B. Tauris, 336 pp, £20.00, June 2017, ISBN 978 1 78831 022 2

In 1989, the Soviet historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, well known to readers of the LRB, was on a plane when the passenger next to her struck up a conversation. She’d been watching him write a letter in French and on that basis assumed he was French. Given her accent he thought at first that she was Danish. Later it seemed appropriate to her that their first conversation had been about language and labels and the confusion of belonging. In fact, Fitzpatrick is Australian and when she asked the man where he was from, he answered: ‘The Baltics.’ And then, grudgingly: ‘The middle one.’ He evidently liked to withhold information – at least on questions of origin. On other things he was less reticent. While they were still airborne he told her he was falling in love with her. They were married a few months later. Now, nearly twenty years after her husband’s death, Fitzpatrick has written a moving, thoughtful book which uses the story of his family to explore unfamiliar and ambiguous historical terrain.

Start with his name. Misha was what Fitzpatrick called him: the Russian diminutive his family knew him by in Riga. In the book he is mostly Mischka, the name he went by in Germany in the 1940s. Mike, Mikhail and Michel don’t get much of a look in, which isn’t surprising, but neither does the Latvian Mikelis, even though he was born in interwar Latvia, went to school there, and spoke the language fluently. As for his surname – Danos – it wasn’t Latvian but Hungarian, and at some point in the family history it had been chosen over the original Deutsch. Which gets another hare running, since families that magyarised their names before the First World War were often Jewish. So, Misha Danos: a Hungarian background, but not from Hungary; a Latvian who manifested little love for Latvia; Jewish, or maybe not, since he passed most of the war unscathed and unhidden in Riga and then moved of his own volition to Germany. Who was this survivor, whose home town was surely one of the places one would least have wanted to be when the Second World War broke out, and why did he choose to find safety first in the Third Reich – of all places – and then in the US of the Cold War, ending his life as an American physicist with a little cottage near the Potomac River?

Riga has lost nearly a third of its population since the Berlin Wall came down – propped up economically through being a popular tourist destination for enterprising weekend jaunts. In the last years of the 19th century, by contrast, it was thriving. Its population was growing rapidly: on the eve of the First World War it was the fourth largest city in the Romanov Empire, and one of the largest in Eastern Europe. Art Nouveau apartment blocks lined the streets in the centre. Riga Technical College was one of the most advanced in Europe. Russian had only recently – in 1891 – replaced German as the language of administration and schools. Learning and culture remained oriented to the Wilhelmine Reich, whose borders were not far to the south. The Jewish population, engaged mostly in the timber trade, was on the increase. The influx of Latvians from the villages was even faster.

Misha Danos was in many ways a typical middle-class product of these circumstances. His mother, Olga, came from rural Latvian stock. Her father owned a watermill generating electricity for local lighting, a source of pride to Danos, who found work in Riga’s state-of-the-art electrotechnical factory before embarking on a career as a physicist. Danos also admired his grandfather, who had one day simply packed up and left his family, never to be heard of again. Danos understood this as an entirely natural response to the boredom of provincial life, a sensibility he shared.

Olga was thus fatherless when the First World War broke out. The family seems to have lived off the rent from some workers’ houses it owned. The children had a proper education and no one, on the face of it, had to worry. Olga’s school was relocated during the war from Riga to Petrograd, and she went to live with a sister who was studying at the state conservatory. Olga became a good enough soprano to enter the Riga Opera chorus, which is where she met a dashing Hungarian tenor stranded by the war. Arpad Danos had been touring with the Hamburg Opera in 1914 and had supposedly avoided internment as an enemy alien by performing under his stage name, Arimondi. He wasn’t only a singer but an athlete who had been the Hungarian high jump champion in 1903.

The Hungarian side of Misha’s family never had much charm for him, but it did for his father and brothers: the boys dressed up in the Hungarian costumes that visiting aunts brought them in the 1920s. They came to believe that the family were originally ethnic German colonists, and the story was that Danos’s paternal grandfather, Josef Deutsch, was a Catholic schoolteacher who had married a Spanish baroness. In fact, his grandmother was called Janka Weiner and, to judge from the archives, both his parents were probably born Jewish, though since Arpad Danos called himself a Catholic, they had presumably converted long before the war.

By 1922 – the year Misha, the second of Arpad and Olga’s three children, was born – his parents’ marriage was on the rocks. His father, not exactly a Luftmensch but not far off, had given up the stage to deal in the aristocratic detritus of the war, buying and selling antiques from noble households. Within a few years the money was draining away so Olga began a tailoring business. It did well. She separated from her husband, who thereafter drifts to the margins of the story, and became the dominant force in her son’s life, pushing him towards the brilliant destiny that she knew would be his.

Riga itself was in difficulties, its population plummeting. The end of the fighting had brought Latvia independence and its citizens were jubilant, but Riga was badly hit financially by the loss of its Russian imperial hinterland. Bolshevism across the border bred an ardently anti-Bolshevik political elite never able to live up to its pretensions of statehood; the Danoses didn’t acquire Latvian passports until 1934 – a sign of their ambivalence about the rise of the provincials. Thus Misha Danos grew up with his mother and his two siblings in the shrunken capital of a small new state for which none of them felt much affection, in a city where German remained the language of the elite but where they felt their status to be slipping and uncertain.

Misha wrote his teenage diary in German. He had come to identify with the language and culture so much that when the Nazis targeted Germans in Riga for repatriation, and talked about bringing them ‘home’ to the Reich, he found such talk entirely natural. But his real passions were athletics and technology, and there was plenty of both in Riga. In a record of his memories he wrote for Fitzpatrick, he observed the pretensions of his homeland as war preparations got underway:

The air force had about twenty planes, bombers and fighters; all of them biplanes, of frame plus canvas construction. Top speed of bombers about 100 miles per hour; of the fighters about 110 miles per hour. The motors of the tanks tended to stall; so as to be prepared for the case that the motor refused to restart, every tank had a heavy hook front and back, and carried a heavy chain. It so happened that this refusal to restart happened during one of these parades; so the chain was hooked between the stalled and non-stalled tank, and the functioning tank started to move, but the stalled did not; the pull was evidently too strong for the armour plate; hook plus a chunk of tank armour moved; tank with hole in armour stayed put. Cannon was horsedrawn.

(He was a technician through and through.) In June 1940, the Red Army invaded, and the country was incorporated into the USSR.

Initially, Danos’s life went on much as usual – unimpeded by sporadic arrests. A few months before the Soviet invasion he had wangled a gap-year job at the Valsts Elektrotechniskā Fabrika (VEF), a factory with a worldwide reputation for audio, radio and photographic equipment; the Minox miniature camera had been invented there. Under Soviet control, VEF was declared an enterprise of ‘all-Union significance’ and brought under the control of the central ministry of industry, with an immediate change in production practices in favour of quantity over quality. When this led to high rates of faulty output, as it was bound to, the search for ‘saboteurs’ began, and Danos didn’t have to wait long to get a close-up view of the workers’ state in operation. But things weren’t all bad for the 18-year-old Danos. He attributed his own subsequent career to the luck he’d had in being allowed to wander the shop floor throughout this period and hang around the renowned VEF design laboratory.

It seems that his first real shock came only near the end of the Soviet occupation, on the night of 14 June 1941, when the NKVD suddenly arrested tens of thousands of people across the Baltic states, including at least 15,000 in Latvia alone. The Danoses were spared, though two of Misha’s cousins had been arrested in an earlier sweep and deported – he never saw either of them again. It was typical of Misha that his way of trying to make sense of what had happened was to take a statistical point of view:

I began, without a conscious decision, to gather statistics, of who it was who had been taken. In a few days, I started to tally it more consciously, after the first data, stories, did not reveal any logic, made no sense: no pattern had emerged. The distribution seemed fully random. I had expected that there would emerge a preponderance of ‘the privileged classes’ in the deportee population. Instead the distribution seemed, and remained so, to really be random; there were more workers than doctors etc; sometimes the whole family was taken, sometimes only one or two members, and even being [a] party member seemed to make no difference: the representation in the deportees represented as cleanly as I could see the composition of the population at large: no preponderance of bosses, or members of formerly privileged classes, or party members, or anything. Democratic to the hilt.

Like his contemporary the Polish writer Stanisław Lem, another survivor of both Soviet and Nazi occupations, Danos seems to have understood the sheer randomness of totalitarian terror as evidence of the impossibility of social theorising. (The contrast here is with his wife, the historian, who is drawn to the same subjects but obliged to interpret them quite differently.) Unlike Lem, however, whose unmistakably Jewish origins brought him even greater suffering under the Germans than under the Soviets, and who ended up living most of his life under communism, the Danoses seem to have shared the general view in Latvia that nothing could be worse than Bolshevism.

Nor did they change their mind once the Germans came in and displaced the Russians in the summer of 1941. In fact, like most Latvians who weren’t (apparently) Jewish, Misha experienced the handover as something of a relief. He had managed to avoid being sent eastwards into Russia when the VEF plant and personnel were evacuated. As the first Germans entered the country, the Latvians were jubilant, and among those volunteering from the very start to help in the fight against the Bolsheviks was Misha’s generally unworldly older brother. Fitzpatrick’s account shows quite clearly how a basically apolitical family like the Danoses, even one with little sense of allegiance to the Latvian national cause, welcomed the German takeover: it promised a return to normality. Both on the shop floor and in the universities life was remarkably undisturbed by the German presence. Danos spent most of his time playing sport, pole-vaulting his way to local prominence and playing ice hockey with some distinction. Fitzpatrick for her part found it hard to accept the view that the Soviet occupation was so much harsher than the Nazis’, yet this had been his experience. In the Baltic states in particular, where Hitler sought to rule with comparative restraint, there is little doubt that the German occupation was not all-encompassing in the way Stalin’s had been, and much less random in its violence.

Unless of course you were Jewish, in which case the perils were very great indeed. The Danos family don’t appear to have been bothered by the risk that their own possible Jewish heritage would be uncovered, and Misha’s mother and aunt both helped Jews to survive. But in March 1943 his aunt was denounced and sent to a concentration camp, and at around this time Misha too glimpsed the horrors afoot.

On Easter Sunday 1943 he went skiing in the woods to the west of the city. It was, as he wrote later, a sunny day. The snow was deep as he headed off cross-country away from the weekend crowds, pushing through the woods until he came to a range of hills. He was surprised to see a line of people walking up them, mostly families with grandparents and children. Joining them, he arrived at the summit. He found himself looking down onto a square pit, filled with corpses, partially covered. Other pits nearby had already been covered; a new one was being dug on the next hill. He had heard news of the killing of the Jews from the Riga ghetto. But to see it for himself, and to witness the spectators turning it into a weekend outing, was different. He went straight home to tell his parents, but it turned out they already knew. Indeed Olga was even then playing a dangerous game, using her contacts with German officers to employ Jews from the ghetto in her tailoring workshop. Was she helping them, or exploiting them? The possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive. One of her Jewish workers later sponsored her immigration into the US, which suggests that what she had been doing hadn’t been without risk.

For Danos the risk that loomed largest in these months was a call-up from the Waffen-SS. His younger brother, Jan, had been imprisoned after going into hiding. His older brother, Arpad Junior, was safe because he worked in a protected occupation. When Misha presented himself to the mobilisation bureau at the end of 1943 he was told that his work at VEF would not protect him, and that he would probably be called up a few months later. His way out was typically ingenious: he applied for a scholarship programme that allowed students from the University of Riga to study in Germany, and was granted permission to go. Astonishingly, the story appears to be true: there was indeed such an exchange, since the Third Reich was keen to promote the Germanisation of the Baltics.

Travelling about the Greater German Reich appears to have been surprisingly easy for someone in Danos’s position, even as late as 1944. He visited friends in Vienna, Berlin and Prague before he was eventually assigned to the Dresden Technische Hochschule. There he worked with Heinrich Barkhausen, a leading German physicist, the first of a series of mentors to recognise his brilliance. His timing was good: the Red Army entered Latvia in the summer of 1944. Olga managed to get out, having transferred her business to the Sudetenland just in time, but his two brothers failed, and his father seems never to have bothered to try. From then on, the Danos family remained sundered by the Cold War.

Danos’s extraordinary war wasn’t quite over – he had a narrow escape in Dresden the night it was bombed by the RAF – but his course was set. He would become a physicist and, like his mother, he would make his life in the West, first in German DP camps, and then in the United States, where he arrived with his first wife and their child. The real dangers were behind him. The almost unbearable complexity of life in the Baltic states in the early 1940s had been successfully traversed. Danos emerges in Fitzpatrick’s affectionate telling as a survivor, a man whose scientific cast of mind gave him a way to understand, and to a certain degree to disavow, the terrifying unpredictability of the world he grew up in. An impulsive and intuitive figure, he reserved more general theorising for the laws of nature.

In this, he marked out the distance between his outlook and that of his third and last wife, whose own life’s work has involved the search for pattern and some kind of underlying reason in social history. Fitzpatrick’s book strikes a nice balance, allowing us to glimpse the familial intimacies while remaining sufficiently detached and sceptical to give us a larger sense of Danos’s world. What strikes us now is the chilling normality of life under German occupation in a place like Riga, where a busy social life, student athletics and university exchanges remained possible for much of the war, alongside the construction of ghettoes and camps and mass execution sites. Misha Danos said little about these things but he kept a remarkable record of them, and Fitzpatrick has done him a service with her fine account of them.