Interview with Manfred Wolf
August 30, 2012
Hotel Deca, Seattle Washington
Interviewed by Paige Stockley.
Son Michael Wolf present.
#1 AS A YOUNG BOY IN HOLLAND, DO YOU REMEMBER FORMER FRIENDS SHOWING SIGNS OF ANTI-SEMITISM, AND ABOUT WHEN DID THAT BEGIN TO SURFACE? HOW DID THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?
We had non-Jewish friends in Holland, and for the most part we did not encounter anti-semitism there, though it certainly existed. The feeling before the invasion among non- Jewish kids was one of excitement. The non-Jewish kids were looking forward to war because the idea of bombs and troops and war was exciting. 16 and 17 year olds who joined the Dutch resistance were usually in three groups: idealists, excitement seekers and hell raisers. I was five years old in 1940. In our family there was great nostalgia for Germany, since my parents both spent time there in the Weimar years. The talk in our family was always "What will happen if Germany invades Holland?" The family was always discussing it. There were plans to send the men on fishing boats to England since it was assumed that the Germans would never harm women or children if they were left behind. Holland had been neutral during WW1, so it was also hoped that Holland would remain neutral in WW2. It was a shock when Germany attacked Holland so ferociously, with the bombing of Rotterdam. It was a short five days before Holland was occupied.
#2 WHAT WERE YOU OR YOUR FAMILY'S FEELINGS TOWARDS GERMANY AT THAT TIME? DID YOU OR YOUR FAMILY THINK THE NAZI PARTY WAS A TEMPORARY TIME OF POLITICAL INSANITY THAT WOULD SOON PASS?
In 1933, when Hitler came to power, my parents were living in Germany. My father was Polish, and he emigrated to Germany in 1922. In Poland, like many Polish Jews, he did not speak Polish, but Yiddish. He learned German when he emigrated. My father loved Germany because it wasn't Poland or Russia. He admired the way Germans were organized and able to run businesses so well. Things were done on time, promises were kept. He was a part of the legendary love affair Jews had with Germany. He and my mother loved the cultural and religious freedom of the Weimar years. They went to plays, they skied in Czechoslovakia, they had many friends. My mother was Dutch (her family originally came from Poland) but well traveled and spoke many languages. She loved Europe. In her mind Poland was not "Europe" it was the "East". She studied French, and no doubt like many Jewish girls during the Weimar time thought of studying in Paris, of NOT marrying a Jewish businessman, but maybe marrying someone from France or "Europe".
In 1937/38 they moved to Holland when life in Germany became more and more intolerable and restrictive for Jews. Their hope was that things wouldn't turn out badly in the end, if they could just hold on. So many German Jews had fought in WW1 there was also the hope that their service would be honored and remembered. I remember a Jewish friend of the family who would often wear his uniform and medals to prove his allegiance to Germany. My parents were also really young. My mother married at age 19. So they were extremely young, meaning too that they were fun-loving and still hopeful that things would turn out alright. An example of their youthful energy was a time we were -- on our flight from Holland -- all staying at a small hotel in France. My mother's brother Paul, who was very close to his sisters, discovered young lovers in another hotel room with the windows open. Each night at the same time they would close their windows---Paul loved to point it out -- causing his wife and sisters to laugh so hard they could hardly stop. Another example of their youthful frivolity is that one night Paul and his wife Melita were out dancing and managed to miss a terrible round-up where every Jewish person in their hotel was arrested. This was, to repeat, on our flight. They were not arrested because they were out dancing.
My father was a brooder. I remember always the talk of the family was "Where shall we go, what shall we do?" Skipping ahead to the family's arrival in Portugal, or perhaps in the hope of getting a ship in Marseille, my father would obsess about getting visas to Liberia. Just to show off (I was only 7), I would shout out the capital of Liberia, "Monrovia", to prove to everyone that I knew a lot about the world. But earlier in Nice, my father had gone and spoken Yiddish to the Yiddish-speaking Jews there, to find out who the smugglers were, who were making fake papers and visas and passports, and who could be bribed, etc.
#3 WERE THERE PEOPLE YOUR FAMILY COULD TRUST OR DID TRUST IN HOLLAND AS YOU PREPARED TO FLEE? HOW DID YOU KNOW YOU COULD TRUST THEM? WHAT MADE THEM TRUSTWORTHY?
There were many trustworthy people in Holland, but the population was scared of the Germans. We left our stuff at our neighbor's house, who said he would return it after the war. He never did, but on the other hand he also didn't betray us. In the end, which was more important? We didn't care about our stuff really. The only thing we had to go on was instinct as far as whether we could trust anyone or not. My father's enforced business partner in Germany turned out to be trustworthy. My father was forced in Nazi Germany to have a "German partner," since Jews were not allowed to own businesses. I believe he came to visit us in Holland. Though he later joined the Nazi party, like many, after the war he became a communist. The trouble with trusting people, is that you might trust the person you tell, but you never know what happens down the chain. Like with Anne Frank. In the end they were betrayed by someone.
#4 WERE YOUR PARENTS AWARE OF THE DEATH CAMPS WHEN YOU TEMPORARILY SETTLED IN NICE? WHY DID THE FAMILY GO TO NICE? DID THE ARREST THERE TAKE THE FAMILY BY SURPRISE?
Southern France was run by the Vichy. It was safe but not safe. Nice had an easy-going reputation, more than Lyon. It was rumored that papers and other documents were not asked for there. Since everyone at that time had forged papers that were barely acceptable, or even real papers that were rejected, it was an important advantage. Uncle Paul had a big talent for bribing officials. We were always in terror that someone would ask to see our papers. No one asked to see our papers in Nice. Our family was in a mood of optimism in Nice. There was a feeling that we might be able to "ride out the war". That maybe Germany wouldn't invade southern France. There was less and less food, however. We ate in a refugee hotel. I remember one dinner that was supposed to be chicken. It did not taste like chicken! It might have actually been rat. One night our mother made potatoes on a hot plate in our hotel room. We thought it was the most delicious things we had ever eaten. Yes, food was scarce for everyone, and we were hungry. We were careful about hiding our money. There was great hilarity when my aunt dangled in the air a tampon that was filled with cash. Everyone was laughing.
When the family was arrested, it was not unexpected, but nonetheless it was traumatic. My mother spoke excellent French. There are two versions of what happend when the family was released. One is that mother was young, pretty, fluent in French, and after 1/2 hour speaking with a Vichy officer, the family was released. The other version is that Uncle Paul bribed an official. He always denied that it was my mother who was able to secure the family's release. Either way, the Jews that were arrested at that round-up ended up being transported to Drancy, and then Auschwitz.
The family did not know about death camps, though there had been stories. They did not believe the stories. Their fear was that they would be sent EAST, to Poland, most likely to a brutal work camp. They were greatly afraid of being sent to Poland.
#5. DO YOU REMEMBER THE FAMILY THINKING FRANCE WAS A SAFE HAVEN OR DID THE FAMILY KNOW THERE WOULD BE VICHY AROUND?
France did not seem safe and there was no food. We were constantly on the lookout for more documents and forgeries. For a time the family discussed going into the French mountains, near Annecy. One of my brother's tutors in Nice was an excellent forger. I was seven by the time we were in France. I was not terribly afraid of the situation. My brother was a more serious type -- and older. My mother was always chatting and babbling and trying to sense or find out what people's motives were. She was an excellent and instinctual judge of character. She and my father were very different. Our next stop after being freed in Monte Carlo was Perpignan.
#6 WHAT WAS THE POLITICAL CLIMATE IN PORTUGAL? DID THE FAMILY ENCOUNTER ANY ANTI-SEMITISM THERE?
Lisbon was like Casablanca in the movie. It was unoccupied and everyone was trying to make a deal or make money. While there were many Nazis there, Lisbon was free. There were ships going to England. If you had money you could make a deal. The locals were trying to make money. The officials were either helpful or mean. It was the luck of the draw. The Dutch visa officials were either Dutch patriots or anti-semitic. No one know which way they were until you were in front of them.
#7 HOW RELIGIOUS WAS YOUR FAMILY? DID YOU FEEL RELIGIOUSLY JEWISH? DID YOU CELEBRATE JEWISH HOLIDAYS AS A CHILD? DURING THE WAR? WHAT WERE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT BEING PERSECUTED FOR YOUR RELIGION?
My father was a religious Jew in Poland, but he changed when he moved to Germany. In the Weimar Republic, there was much secularization. He discovered socialism. Mother was more secular. Her parents stayed religious, but she was only half-heartedly religious. For me the persecution felt more like an ethnic persecution. We knew only that Germans wanted to kill us. In college I thought more about the meaning of religious persecution, but even in the 1950's there was little or no discussion about it. Only after Anne Frank did you see an opening of this discussion, here in the US and elsewhere.
#8 IN CURACAO YOUR FAMILY LEARNED THE FULL EXTENT OF THE NAZI DEATH CAMPS AFTER THE WAR. HOW SURPRISED WERE THEY? WHAT WAS THE TALK OF THE HOUSEHOLD?
They were horrified, surprised, but not too surprised. They were ready to believe the worst but still it was worse than they thought. My aunt Rita Kornmehl gave a great testimony of this subject to the Spielberg archives. That of my uncle Paul, war-hero of Normandy, was less cogent, in part because of the ineptness of the interviewer.
#9 WHAT WERE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT GOD BEFORE THE WAR? COMPARED TO AFTER THE WAR? AND NOW?
I am more of an atheist then ever. My atheism has more to do with my world view then with anything that happened during the war. But of course, many people -- like me -- who say they're atheists are really agnostics.
#10 YOUR PARENTS SEEM TO HAVE BEEN VERY ABLE, STRONG AND CLEVER TO HAVE KEPT THE FAMILY TOGETHER AND SAFE DURING THE PERIOD OF ESCAPE. WHAT MADE THEM SO EXTRAORDINARY?
Everyone in the family had different talents. Information was collected by everyone in different ways specific to their talents. My father was determined to get us out of Europe, Uncle Paul was quick to bribe important officials, and my mother was charming and able to make friends and connect with people the way my father could not. Though they were very different in that way, my father listened to my mother. My other aunt was doing diamond smuggling back and forth between unoccupied France and Holland, so as to get many important officials on her side, while her four-year old daughter Paulette was in a French convent. Uncle Paul was later on, in Spain, able to bribe officials to secure her release and her parents' release -- i.e., my grandparents --from a Spanish prison. After emigrating to Jamaica, Paul joined a Dutch volunteer unit in 1943, the famous "Prinses Irene Brigade," which trained with the Canadian military, participated in the landing in Normandy, and was part of the Canadian liberating force that liberated Holland.
FOLLOW UP QUESTION FROM MICHAEL WOLF
Question: The family must have had a lot of funds to be able to live for several years without the possiblity of earning. Where did this money come from?
Answer: They probably had the equivalent in today's dollars of $50,000 to $100,000. This was in the form of carefully hidden cash or diamonds. The money mostly came from the selling of the business in Germany before they moved to Holland. This was another positive reflection on his enforced partner in Germany who could have made the selling of the business less profitable for my father. The other aspect of this is that my father had been able early on, before the war started, to deposit money in America before it was too late to do so. He had $25,000 in American banks which he was finally able to access after the war. That was extremely helpful as they had arrived in Curacao virtually without money. Without some money, most of what I've described couldn't have been accomplished. After all, on our flight, we needed to move around, to pay for lodging, to eat.