End­pa­pers: A Fam­i­ly Sto­ry of Books, War, Escape, and Home

  • Review
By – July 2, 2021

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.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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