Book Review | A Family in Pen and Ink

Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape and Home
By Alexander Wolff
Atlantic Monthly Press, 400 pp., $28

In the rise and fall of Hitler’s Germany, villains, victims and heroes figure profusely and are easily recognized. We denounce murderous anti-Semites and their witting accomplices with the moral ease of a child at Purim cranking a grogger at the mention of Haman. We mourn the six million. We honor the memory of resistance fighters, righteous gentiles and Allied soldiers who braved amphibious assaults, slogged across Europe, often gave their lives and slew the dragon that menaced all civilization.

Then there are the others, those who neither advocated nor actively resisted but survived by compromise, acquiescence and the occasional case of willful blindness. Such people defy easy judgment. Were they complicit? Would we have done likewise, given the opportunity?

Alexander Wolff’s compelling exploration of his German-American family makes you think about such people. Wolff’s grandfather, his aunt and his father were all born in Germany. His half-Jewish grandfather, the eminent publisher Kurt Wolff, fled the Nazis for a successful career in the United States. His father, Niko Wolff, a product of Kurt’s first marriage to a non-Jew, remained in Germany and fought in the Wehrmacht despite his one-quarter Jewish ancestry, emigrating later to raise Alexander in an American suburb. His father’s sister, Maria, lived through the war in Germany. Living in the age of pen and ink, they all documented their experiences in voluminous letters and diaries that Wolff, an accomplished magazine writer, plows through when, as an adult, he moves to Germany in search of the life they left behind.

That the documents are often eloquent should come as no surprise. Kurt Wolff was a famously creative and influential German publisher in pre-Nazi Germany. Born in 1887, he was half-Jewish by ancestry, but his mother and maternal grandfather had been baptized. Kurt became a literary champion of German Expressionism and a suave embodiment of Weimar libertinism. He published the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore and the stories of a shy young man he had met in 1912, Franz Kafka. There were, of course, lapses: In 1920, he passed on an offer of German rights to a novel from, in Kurt’s words, an “idiotic ‘professor’ who has written me from Trieste in bad German,” aka James Joyce. In his personal life, Kurt Wolff was incapable of marital fidelity and, by one account, would gather his several mistresses together for coffee in a Munich hotel lobby, letting all know the limits of their claims to his affection.

Alexander Wolff exposes in his ancestors’ experiences the common thread. It is the barest, most basic definition of purpose in life, neither noble nor subhuman: survival.

The rise of Hitler presaged, at a minimum, the end of Wolff’s career in Germany, since the books he published—not just Kafka but Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil and others—were among those the Nazis pointedly chose for burning. Kurt’s ancestry, baptisms notwithstanding, defined him as half-Jewish under Nazi race laws. In 1941, he and his second wife, Helen, with the help of an American aid organization, escaped to the United States, becoming refugees and then citizens, and founded a new publishing house that carried on his insistence on high literary quality, Pantheon Books. The new house would become the U.S. publishers of the likes of Albert Camus, André Gide and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. It struck publisher’s gold with its most atypical offering, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s bestseller, Gift from the Sea.

Niko Wolff, the author’s father, was Kurt’s son by his first marriage to Elisabeth Merck, a scion of the family that founded the pharmaceutical firm E. Merck 353 years ago in Darmstadt, Germany. Elisabeth was a Christian, making her children, Niko and his elder sister Maria, one-quarter Jewish. After their parents’ amicable divorce, they grew up with their mother and stepfather, a renowned obstetrician, in a well-to-do, cultured bourgeois household in Munich. Their stepfather played violin and viola, painted watercolors and performed magic tricks. It was the kind of family in which Jewish friends and colleagues were not uncommon, and a faint trace of Jewish ancestry was unsurprising, if unmentioned. When their father and his second wife fled to America, Niko and Maria stayed behind; a quarter-Jew could pass Nazi racial standards. They did not flaunt their minimal Jewish roots and hoped for the best. For Niko, born in 1921, that meant being drafted in 1940 into the Reich Labor Service, which prepared German teens for future military service and then conscription into the army, where, despite his part-Jewish ancestry, he served on both the Eastern and Western fronts.

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After the war, with Kurt’s help, Niko emigrated to America and completed his education as a chemist, succeeding in both academe and industry. His German accent betrayed his origins, but he said little about his experiences in Germany before or during the war.

Alexander Wolff was born in the United States in 1957. At Princeton he became attracted to writing and spent a career at Sports Illustrated. At age 60, ten years after his father Niko’s death, he moved his own family to Berlin to research his ancestors’ stories. “I wanted a better sense of the European chapters in the lives of my forefathers and the bloody period in which they unfolded,” he writes. “I was moved more than anything by a nagging sense of oversight.”

Endpapers is Alexander Wolff’s unflinching account of what he found. He learned, among other things, that some of his extended family were full-throated Nazi supporters, that E. Merck’s relationship to the Nazi regime was much closer than his distant cousins would have claimed, and that his father’s obstetrician stepfather financially supported the SS (his party connections perhaps protecting Niko).

But this is not an “Ivan the Terrible” story of a war criminal who slipped into postwar America. Niko, whose mother saved all the letters he dutifully sent from the war, committed no atrocity. He was an army driver, a grunt, one more young conscript, one more piece of the human flotsam that war carries off to distant battlefields. His letters went through military censorship, so there is no hint of anti-Nazism, but there is no hint of enthusiasm, either.

In one letter home from the Eastern Front, Niko assures his mother that he is eating well, describing his ample diet. The author, reading the letter, is stunned: The civilians around Niko in occupied Ukraine were suffering from a famine created by Hitler. In his summing up of what he has learned in Germany, of what Niko never told him about the Wolffs and the Mercks, the loving son is a tough judge, calling his late father “a party to genocide simply for having eaten the rations made available to him.”

The most compelling documents Wolff explores are the letters exchanged at war’s end between Niko’s elder sister Maria and their father Kurt, who by then was assimilated (if awkwardly) into American life. Maria had spent the war in Germany, with no sympathy for the Nazi regime but unwilling to leave her country and her mother—and without an offer of escape to America.

Maria’s story tests the reach of our empathy. An estimated 500,000 German civilians died in Allied bombing raids, more than twice the number of Americans who died fighting in the European theater and more than ten times the British civilian casualties of the Blitz. What was a bombing raid like? Maria described it in a 1946 letter to her father:

We lie flat on the basement floor so as not to be knocked over by the force of a blast…You sense a strange, wavelike tremor, eerily silent and threatening. The first “carpet.” Now it comes: a rushing blast of air pressure, and you swear your eardrums will burst. The house sways, as if a huge hand is squeezing it from above. Within the walls, plaster rains down. The tinkling of glass. The smell of rubble and fire. Then quiet. After a few seconds it begins all over again. In between, the heavy-caliber weaponry, howling. You crouch there like a target with an arrow trained at it, an arrow that bores into your heart. 

Once, after experiencing an air raid with her and their mother Elisabeth when he was home on leave, Niko said, “Never again. We’re like rats in a trap. I’d rather die at the front.” By 1946, though, news of the concentration camps had spread, and Thomas Mann, an exile in America, had given an internationally broadcast speech, “The Camps.” The camps, Mann told his fellow Germans, were “our disgrace.” Everyone “who speaks German, writes German, has lived in German is affected by this dishonorable exposure.”

Maria had no time for Mann’s declaration of her guilt. “Determining guilt or innocence can only be done by those who have thoroughly tasted the bitterness of the past twelve years—all the way, to the end,” she wrote. “No one who hasn’t actually experienced it can imagine that feeling of helplessness and vulnerability.” It was a common attitude among Germans at the time. Writers who opposed Nazism but had remained in the country rejected Mann’s condemnation, defending their psychological strategy of “inner migration.” But Kurt Wolff sides with Mann, telling Maria:

The guilt you refer to is an old guilt, much older than the war. The Germans will only reconcile with themselves and the world if, out of their own fear and suffering, they recognize the suffering of others—those whose mortal fear was no less than yours, only more senseless, more hopeless, thanks to the capriciousness of their tormentors, tormentors who were Germans. No one can absolve us of this, not you, not me. 

Despite professional success, Kurt Wolff, the epitome of the cosmopolitan European, never fully warmed to American life or the English language; he and his wife ultimately left the United States for Switzerland. Maria remained in Germany, but she too had an American sojourn. Her second husband became director of Goethe House, the German cultural center in New York, and they lived for several years on Fifth Avenue, emissaries from the new Germany to the country where her father had found refuge.

Niko stayed in America and married a Christian American woman who, their son writes, had spent her teen years in suburban Connecticut “hoping for the annihilation of the army of which my father was a part.” As a successful chemist, Niko was best friends with a German Jewish refugee, despised McCarthyism and Richard Nixon and raised an American family partly in Rochester, New York, where Xerox had hired him to run a research facility. Seeking the best schools, they chose to live in a predominantly Jewish suburb, where, evidently for social reasons, they joined the Jewish Community Center. At age 13, Alexander, while feeling not at all Jewish and with some anxiety that his ancestral Germanness might jeopardize his friendships, found himself instead a regular at his friends’ bar mitzvahs.

Now, having looked more deeply into that Germanness, the author is left with layers of ambiguities—“Kurt and Helen’s flight and exile, Maria and Elisabeth’s fate to be ‘rats in a trap,’ Niko’s service on two fronts.” In contemporary Berlin, where the Nazis’ victims are memorialized in the very pavement, Alexander Wolff exposes in his ancestors’ experiences the common thread. It is the barest, most basic definition of purpose in life, neither noble nor subhuman: survival.

Robert Siegel is a special literary contributor to Moment.

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