“What did you do during the war?”
Had Alexander Wolff asked this question, his father Niko Wolff would have told him that he was a soldier in the German army, in the Wehrmacht. Had he asked the same question of his grandfather, he would have learned that Kurt Wolff had fled Nazi Germany before he could be arrested on the basis of his Jewish ancestry .
In what he calls “an amalgam of history, journalism, and memoir,” Alexander Wolff ties together the biographies of his father and paternal grandfather, seeking the story of his family on both sides of the Atlantic in archives, family letters, journals, diaries, and interviews. He searches for his own version of historical reckoning in a most readable and engaging style.
Wolff, a longtime writer for Sports Illustrated, traces his father’s family back to mid-eighteenth-century German court Jews whose children converted to Christianity, with succeeding generations continuing to move away from their Jewish origins.
In the early 1900s, the author’s grandfather founded a publishing house in Germany, the Kurt Wolff Verlag, helping to shape the literary landscape of the time by publishing contemporary writers such as Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth. The First World War brought a hiatus in publishing, as Wolff and most of his staff were drafted. He resumed publishing post-war, but the economic situation was difficult. Then came the Depression, and his publishing house closed. The following year, he and his wife, whose family founded the Merck pharmaceutical company, divorced. He had taken up with one of his employees, Helen Mosel, whom he later married.
After Hitler became chancellor and the Reichstag burned, Kurt Wolff declared to Helen, “These are madmen … Pack!” Two days later they left Germany. He left Niko and his older sister with their mother in Germany, and the couple sought safety in France. That safety didn’t last, and in 1941, thanks to the efforts of the American Emergency Rescue Committee and its emissary Varian Fry, Kurt and Helen Wolff arrived in America.
Meanwhile, in 1940 his son Niko was drafted into the military. In going through his father’s wartime letters home, the author describes “heart-stabbing” moments when he comes across a photo of his father in a uniform with a swastika, and an envelope addressed in his father’s handwriting clearly postmarked “Auschwitz,” where, Niko told his son, he had passed through.
In New York, Kurt and Helen Wolff resumed publishing and established Pantheon Books. It was not until 1948 that they welcomed Niko to America, where he would put his past behind him and rebuild his life.
Alexander Wolff does more than chronicle his father and grandfather’s lives; he explores the immigrant experience, grapples with issues that include German guilt and responsibility, assesses Germany today, and discerns what his American and German roots mean to him.