August 27, 2017

Books

A love of the past

By Emily Gallagher
‘Mischka’s War’ is a historian’s honest attempt at preserving both love and objectivity

When the great French historian Jules Michelet, author of Histoire de France (1833–67), first opened the dusty collections of the Archives Nationales in Paris, he noticed “a movement and murmur which were not those of death”. For Michelet, the old papers and parchments, so long abandoned, were not just traces of the past, “but lives of men, of provinces, and of nations”. In the silence of the empty galleries, the dead had come to life. Enchanted by his experience and the possibility that the historian could defy the permanence of death, Michelet made it his life’s work to re-create that moment in the archive – to resurrect the dead.

Nearly 200 years later, Sheila Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of Sydney, made a similar discovery when she published a short essay about her father in the London Review of Books in 2007. As she later recalled, “by writing, you can bring the dead to life”. The temptation to find a Lazarus has always been compelling for biographers and, 10 years after she first experimented with the field, Fitzpatrick has attempted the greatest task of all: to bring her late husband, Misha, as she calls him, back from the dead.

Mischka’s War: A European Odyssey in the 1940s (Melbourne University Press; $34.99) is the third in Fitzpatrick’s series of memoirs, following My Father’s Daughter (2010) and A Spy in the Archives (2013). Relying on a family collection of diaries, letters, photographs and oral histories, as well as the author’s personal memories, the book charts the story of Mischka Danos and his mother, Olga, as they navigate the unfolding disaster in Europe in the 1940s.

Mischka’s journey begins in Riga, Latvia, where he and his two brothers, Arpad and Jan, were raised under Olga’s free-spirited care. With the outbreak of the war in 1939, Latvia’s location in the Baltic region of Northern Europe made it a target of both the Communist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. In 1944, 22-year-old Mischka escaped impending military call-up by travelling to Germany as an exchange student. Aside from several small trips to other Central European countries, he would remain in Germany for the next seven years, narrowly surviving the Allied bombing of Dresden and a life-threatening bout of diphtheria, before living as a displaced person in occupied Germany after the war. Eventually, Mischka moved to Heidelberg in 1949 to complete his PhD at Heidelberg Physics Institute.

Parallel with Mischka’s story is that of his mother. After separating from her husband before the war, Olga maintained a tailoring business while pursuing a career as a sculptor in Riga and later in Fulda. She wrote often to Mischka during his time in Germany, and Fitzpatrick uses their extensive correspondence to sew these two stories together. The close companionship they share is the key thread that runs through the book, the story concluding when Mischka and Olga resettle in the United States in the early 1950s.

Mischka’s War is a captivating story of a mother and her son, but it is not just a story about Mischka and Olga. As Don Watson has observed, it is also a story about the author “as she tries to preserve the historian’s objectivity and ‘distance’ from even the most terrible events, while uncovering the story of one man among the millions caught up in them—the man she met and fell in love with long after the war was over”.

Both in its intent and its story, this is a profoundly honest book. Fitzpatrick remains conscious of her position in Mischka’s story, resisting the temptation to dramatise events and painstakingly alerting readers to the moments when she recognises that her memory is driving the narrative. She also writes honestly about the more painful parts of her husband’s story. As she admits towards the end of the book, writing about Mischka’s experiences of the Dresden bombings, the unpleasant way he sometimes wrote about and treated women, and Olga’s depression after she resettled in the United States, were difficult moments.

As the reader turns the final pages of Mischka’s War, there is a strong sense that no genre properly captures what Fitzpatrick has tried to do in this book. Although Mischka and Olga’s story gains momentum as it progresses, the tension between memoir, biography and history shadows the author through every chapter. At times, the tension is productive. For example, Fitzpatrick’s knowledge of her husband’s personality later in his life offers a rare glimpse into the decisions of the younger Mischka. By knowing him as she did, with his stubborn loyalty to the people he loved, inherent distrust of nationalism, hostility towards claims of authority, dislike for the ordinary, and passion for theoretical physics, the author is able to craft an intimate portrait of her husband. It is the kind of picture that comes from knowing the whole person rather than just the traces of one.

At other times, Fitzpatrick’s commitment to three different genres makes it difficult for the reader to move beyond the position of an observer. Except for Mischka’s account of the bombing of Dresden, we are never fully immersed in his or Olga’s story, distanced by the author’s careful distinctions between history and memory. Although Fitzpatrick intended this book to be a celebration of Mischka and Olga, it is also a celebration of her and Misha. Throughout each chapter, it is the author and her struggle to honour her husband’s story that you often find yourself empathising with the most.

Like Fitzpatrick, all of us have people we would like to bring back to life: people we loved, people we thought we could have loved. Mischka’s War is a powerful tribute from a wife to her husband and a provocative study on the nature of history writing. Not unlike Michelet’s magisterial Histoire de France, it makes us wonder whether it is possible to bring someone back from the dead, even if only for a moment.

Emily Gallagher

Emily Gallagher is a PhD candidate of the school of history at the Australian National University.

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