Mischka’s War by Sheila Fitzpatrick

Mischka’s War by Sheila Fitzpatrick

‘This is a historian’s book, not a memoir, but it’s also a wife’s book about her husband.’

In 1989, Sheila Fitzpatrick, an Australian historian, met Mischka Danos, a theoretical physicist originally from Latvia, on a plane.  They met by chance, fell into conversation, then into love and married.  They had ten years together: Mischka died in 1999.

In this book, Ms Fitzpatrick pieces together Mischka’s life before she knew him, through diary entries, correspondence and recollections from others who knew him. It’s a way of remembering Mischka, of keeping him alive, of trying to understand his past.  It also provides insights into the impact of World War II, on a family from the Baltic state of Latvia.

In 1943, while skiing through the Latvian woods, Mischka Danos came across a pit filled with the bodies of Jews killed by the Germans.  He was aged 22.  Later, Mischka was to discover that he was part-Jewish.  His father, Arpad, was a Hungarian Jew who had changed his name from Deutsch to Danos, around 1900.  Did Mischka know this, I wondered, when he went on a student exchange to Germany to escape conscription into the Waffen-SS?

Mischka narrowly escaped death in the fire-bombing of Dresden, became a Displaced Person in occupied Germany before finally being reunited with his mother Olga.  Mischka became a member of the Heidelberg school of physics and then both he and Olga were resettled in the USA at the beginning of the 1950s.  Around the biographical facts, Ms Fitpatrick has provided the detail which brings both Mischka and Olga to life and provides the reader with the context for the choices made and the decisions taken.

Sheila Fitzpatrick is Professor of History at the University of Sydney and Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of the University of Chicago.  She has written several books about Soviet history, as well as two memoirs: ‘My Father’s Daughter’ (2010) and ‘A Spy in the Archives’ (2013).  I’ve added these memoirs to my reading list.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Melbourne University Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith