Off the Shelf: Fathers, sons and the legacy of history

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman


Untangling three generations of a complex family history: that’s the reason Alexander Wolff moved to Germany for a year in 2017. He wanted to understand the lives of two men: his grandfather Kurt Wolff and his father Niko Wolff. The German-Jewish Kurt, whose grandmother had converted to Christianity, published books (including those of Franz Kafka) that were burned by the Nazis. While Kurt managed to escape Germany before World War II, Niko remained behind and served in the Nazi army. Both men emigrated to the U.S. – Kurt in 1933 and Niko after the war in 1948 – although much about their European life remained a mystery to Alexander. Their stories form the core of the author’s memoir/history “Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home” (Atlantic Monthly Press).

Before he discusses his grandfather and father in detail, Alexander feels the need to put their lives into perspective by writing about Kurt’s Jewish ancestors, baptized or not. He shows how antisemitism existed in Germany long before the Nazi era and gives details about the anti-Jewish riots that took place in the early part of the 19th century. Even when Jews converted, they were never completely accepted as German. Alexander mentions that one of the most striking things he saw in the Jewish Museum Berlin was the use of the term “baptized Jew.” Although a person is usually no longer considered Jewish after they convert, this was not true in Germany. Alexander lists Germans of Jewish descent (converted or not), who had, by the middle of the 20th century, distinguished themselves in science, music, literature and philosophy, among other fields. He notes that “German Jewish accomplishments touched off resentment. Antisemitism draws strength from stigmatization of the alien ‘other’; in nineteenth-century Germany, it also fed of a desire to punish Jews for their prosperity and acculturation, regardless of what they might have contributed or overcome.” 

However, the main purpose of “Endpapers” is for Alexander to explore the lives of his grandfather and father. When Kurt escaped from Germany, he came to the U.S. with his second wife, Helen. They formed the publishing company Pantheon, which made literary history when “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak appeared. They also proved their American credentials with the release of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gift from the Sea.” Even with these successes, Kurt and Helen were forced to leave the firm. After moving to Switzerland in the 1950s, they were approached by Harcourt, Brace and World publishers and given their own imprint. Unfortunately, Kurt died in an accident in 1963; his funeral was attended not only by those in the literary world, but the many women with whom he had had an affair. 

Niko had not been living with his father when he left Germany because Kurt had divorced Niko’s mother, Elizabeth, with whom Niko and his sister, Maria, lived. Elizabeth remarried and her new husband, Hans Albrecht, protected the family. While Albrecht never joined the Nazi Party, he did hold membership in organizations that had close ties to the Nazi command. Because of those connections, Niko and Maria’s Jewish ancestry seemed to disappear from official records. Although no member of the family practiced Judaism, their ancestors’ conversions were void as far as the Nazis were concerned. As descendants of Jews, Kurt, Niko and Maria could have been sent to concentration camps. 

Niko, who came to the U.S. as a graduate student in chemistry with the help of his father, had a successful career working in industry. He also had a very different temperament from that of Kurt: “[Niko’s father] had been a man in a hurry: Kurt went into publishing at twenty-one and founded his own firm five years later, marrying in between. But Niko’s childhood had been jolted by divorce, his adolescence disfigured by Nazism, his adulthood stayed by war.” While Kurt was looking for an extraordinary life, Niko wanted an ordinary existence. This included being a faithful husband, something Kurt was not. Kurt’s infidelities produced at least one offspring, in addition to the three children from his two marriages. 

What Alexander struggles with most are two aspects of his family’s past: his father’s time in the Nazi army (particularly when he was stationed in Ukraine) and his grandmother Elizabeth’s family’s ownership of the Merck Company, which had connections to the Nazi government. The source of his information about Niko’s army service in Ukraine are the letters Niko wrote to his mother and the author’s research on the Nazi plan to systematically break the Ukrainian spirit. His research uncovered something of which Alexander had not been aware and of which his father never spoke: the Nazis’ plan of “genocide by starvation in Ukraine under Nazi occupation during 1941-42... [The Hunger Plan sought] to starve to death up to thirty million non-Germans by diverting food to soldiers in the field and back to the home front.” Alexander writes that the plan was not completely successful, although he can’t help but note how Niko’s letters speak of how well fed he and the troops were during their time in Ukraine. The author assumes that his father’s duties of a driver prevented him from taking part in the worst of the atrocities, but he never asked his father exactly what he had done when he was in the army.

Elizabeth, Kurt’s first wife and Niko’s mother, belonged to the non-Jewish family that controlled the Merck Company, which manufactured chemicals and pharmaceuticals. The company was taken over before World War II by a non-family member, Bernhard Pfotenhauer, who had deep ties to the Third Reich. However, Wilhelm Merck (Alexander’s grandmother’s brother) joined the Nazi party and became a member of the SS. The company also profited when Adolph Hitler began taking a drug it produced: Eukodal, an opioid described as “twice as effective at relieving pain as morphine, capable of delivering a loftier high than heroin.” The drug kept Hitler living in a fog of unrealistic expectations: the now delusional leader believed he could still win the now unwinnable war. The company’s past came to haunt the family: Niko, who owned shares in the company, sold them and invested in U.S. companies. Alexander also knows the money from that sale helped fund his summer camp experiences and his college years. 

In addition, Alexander ponders the implications of his step-grandfather having connections to the Nazi government. Can he overlook those connections? But would he even exist if not for what Albrecht had done? The lesson he draws from this is that “no one is in the clear, least all of anyone held to modern standards of accountability. And those standards lead me to an excruciating place. For while it’s easy to judge my step-grandfather for having been a supporting member of the SS, who am I to hold against Dr. Albrecht what he might have done to conceal Niko’s Jewish roots, if doing so helped saved my father’s life?” 

Another discussion focuses on the rise of Nazism itself. Alexander notes the artificial nature of democracy in Germany after World War I: “Germany had its first democratic government essentially imposed on it, after the humiliation of a lost war, on a people who only knew how to be subjects, not citizens – which only underscores how fragile, how tied to context, democracy is.” He also notes how German Jews’ feelings of connection to Germany left them blind and unable to understand what was taking place: these feelings “propagated an illusion of security to German Jews, so many of whom refused to believe the country they loved, the land of Beethoven and Goethe and Kant, would target the very people who most appreciated that culture, who indeed helped create and elevate it.” 

The author also writes of the difficulties his Aunt Maria faced during the Allied bombing of Germany at the end of the war. Those who remember the Blitz the Germans inflicted on London might find themselves less sympathetic than the author, but he is right to note that one horrific event does not excuse another. Thinking about this allows the author to discuss ethical behavior on both sides of the war.

“Endpapers” is an intriguing and complex work whose purpose is to challenge readers to view the world in many shades of grey, rather than black and white. Alexander never excuses what the Nazis and Hitler did, but his explorations allow him to examine his own relationship to Germany and the United States, his country of birth, in light of what he discovers. While Alexander’s writing is clear and easy to read, the tangled paths of his family history are less easy to follow. The extensive family tree included was extremely helpful in keeping the many relationships straight. The ethical decisions and family behavior of which he writes are also far more complicated than one might originally think. There is so much to discuss that book clubs who choose this work might find themselves scheduling extra sessions.