Amer­i­can Wolf: From Nazi Refugee to Amer­i­can Spy

October 8, 2022

In the sum­mer of 1941, eleven-year-old Wolf is grow­ing up amid the rub­ble and anti­semitism of war-torn Nazi Berlin. Des­ti­tute and fac­ing depor­ta­tion, he must leave behind his sis­ter and trav­el with his fam­i­ly across a con­ti­nent entrenched in war. With noth­ing in hand but expired visas to the US, Wolf and his fam­i­ly must fig­ure out how to sneak aboard the Span­ish freighter the Nave­mar, a ship that would gain its rep­u­ta­tion as the Hell Ship of Death.” But this is only the begin­ning of Wolf’s saga. 

Amer­i­can Wolf is a heart-stop­ping true sto­ry full of last-minute res­cues, near-death encoun­ters, and sur­vival against untold odds. It is also a sto­ry about com­ing of age, fam­i­ly dys­func­tion and nation­al iden­ti­ty, and is a resound­ing tes­ta­ment to the tri­umph of the human spirit. 

Using the notes com­piled by her father, Audrey Birn­baum vivid­ly retells a poignant account of Wolf’s child­hood in Berlin, his riv­et­ing escape from Nazi Ger­many, and the con­tin­ued chal­lenges he faced even as he reached freedom.

Discussion Questions

In the intro­duc­tion to this pow­er­ful Holo­caust mem­oir, Audrey Birn­baum writes, He is no longer here, but if you turn the page, I will res­ur­rect him.” She’s talk­ing about her father, Jack (Wolf) Schw­ersenz. Her book is based on a 340-page man­u­script her father wrote using a man­u­al type­writer. Schw­ersenz was a sev­en­ty-five-year-old retiree when he doc­u­ment­ed his life sto­ry. He was con­vinced that, as a mem­ber of a dis­placed fam­i­ly, it was of great impor­tance to detail their his­to­ry both dur­ing the war and after. Their lives com­plete­ly changed with the rise of Hitler and in the years lead­ing to the Holo­caust. Wolf wrote about his family’s expe­ri­ences when he was young, dur­ing the 1930s in Berlin, and then when they came as immi­grants to the Unit­ed States. 

Birn­baum explains that she “ … recraft­ed these mem­o­ries … told in first per­son because it is his sto­ry.” But the book is not with­out her influ­ence. She took care to cor­rect his­tor­i­cal facts and dates where nec­es­sary and added infor­ma­tion about the times to clar­i­fy the con­text of the events described.

As a tod­dler in 1933, Wolf was held up by his grand­fa­ther on a bal­cony, below which a noisy demon­stra­tion of Nazis marched through Berlin shout­ing Jews out!” For the next eight years, the fam­i­ly lived under fright­en­ing con­di­tions in Ger­many. Birnbaum’s descrip­tion of Jew­ish life dur­ing this peri­od is well writ­ten and detailed. It’s an impor­tant tes­ti­mo­ny about those dif­fi­cult years for the Jews who remained in Ger­many. Even­tu­al­ly, after eight years of uncer­tain­ty and many efforts — espe­cial­ly by Wolf’s moth­er — the fam­i­ly, includ­ing Wolf’s grand­par­ents, man­aged to get visas in 1941 and sail to the Unit­ed States. 

Life as immi­grant new­com­ers was not easy, even though they had rel­a­tives in New York who helped them in the begin­ning. The ear­ly years were chal­leng­ing for the whole fam­i­ly, and that sto­ry is an excel­lent exam­ple of the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by the rel­a­tive­ly few sur­vivors who man­aged to evade the Nazis and escape to the Unit­ed States. Birn­baum goes on to describe Wolf’s ser­vice in the Army and his return to Berlin after many years. He was recruit­ed and assigned to intel­li­gence units thanks to his lan­guage skills.

Amer­i­can Wolf is an impor­tant, well-writ­ten book about Jew­ish life in Ger­many before the out­break of the war and the many chal­lenges faced by those who immi­grat­ed and had to adjust to a new life.