Wolf family narrowly escapes danger
Manfred Wolf’s new book explores ‘Survival in Paradise’
by Glenn Gullmes
For almost two decades, columnist Manfred Wolf has had the last word in the West Portal Monthly, holding down the inside back page with his insightful observations on interpersonal relationships, changing language and the cultural contradictions that define our society.
A longtime resident of The Parkside, the soft-spoken, thoughtful and thoroughly engaging professor taught at SF State from 1956 to 1995, with additional teaching stints over the years ranging from UC Berkeley and the University of Helsinki to his current position at the Fromm Institute at USF.
Wolf’s latest book, Survival in Paradise, looks back at his childhood refugee experience in escaping an ever-encroaching Nazi regime. The riveting 271-page book details his family’s perseverance amidst tragedy and serves as a 21st century reminder of the unspeakable horrors of The Holocaust, the after-effects of which continue to reverberate across the ocean, decades later.
Wolf’s page-turning, thrill-a-minute first chapter, 1942, reads like an outline for a big-screen Hollywood thriller.
Navigating a dangerous maze of figurative (and literal) minefields, secret hiding places, bribes, corrupt officials, forged papers, incomplete documents, interrogations and detentions, the Wolf family somehow managed multiple border crossings, staying barely a step ahead of Nazi capture.
The family uprooted their lives in Germany and moved to The Netherlands before World War II engulfed Europe, eventually making their way across France and Spain to reach a Portuguese ship that would set sail for safe haven in the Dutch Caribbean island colony of Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela. The terrifying childhood memories are as vivid as ever.
“Crossing at night from occupied to unoccupied France, falling down when dogs started barking, being captured in Nice and being released – for all sort of inscrutable reasons – by the Vichy French whose job was to deport Jews...”
His voice trails off as he recalls friends and family members who were lost in Nazi concentration camps.
From his care-free childhood in Holland to his family’s dangerous trek across Europe to his coming of age in the New World, the refugee experience had a major impact on the trajectory of his life.
He was raised by a charming mother who made friends easily (and proved invaluable when dealing with reluctant officials) and an ever-brooding, nervous and distant father, who lost six brothers during World War II and was constantly making plans to flee to another country.
Caught in between cultures and yearning to return to his days in the Dutch countryside, young Manny was somewhat of an outsider, just trying to “fit in.” He honed his observational skills while making friends from different cultures and gaining respect from his teachers, classmates and locals. With an attention to detail that bring his recollections to life, the well-rounded characters he encountered during his journeys jump off the page.
Seemingly calm and somewhat detached, his low-key manner masked the sadness, anxieties and frustrations experienced by the self-described “serious, bookish,” displaced child. It is only when he comes to America and enrolls in Brandeis University that he begins to come to terms with the tragedy he spent his childhood trying to avoid.
“I was never at home anywhere. Even here in San Francisco, there are things that strike me as very odd. America is a wonderful, but slightly strange place,” he observed recently.
Fortunately for his friends, students and readers, he is no longer on the run, however.
Glenn Gullmes is the Editor and Publisher of the West Portal Weekly