Within two years of his arrival in the States, Walter was ready to take the fight back to the Nazis as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Trained for the Intelligence Corps at Camp Ritchie, he was sent first to Italy and then to Germany and Austria, where he interrogated POWs for potential prosecution as war criminals at Nuremburg. At the same time, on his travels in Europe he returned to the confiscated properties of his extended family, throwing out the occupiers and reclaiming ownership. Telling the rousing story of a Jewish boy who fled persecution and returned to prosecute the Nazi oppressors, Walter Wolff’s daughter Nina has reconstructed these events from family lore and her father’s own cache of more than 700 wartime letters and 200 photographs, which he revealed to her shortly before he died.
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Walking My Father's Labyrinth
His early childhood was spent cloistered in a large four-story Victorian building in Koblenz, Germany. He didn't have a lot of friends and played only with his sister and cousins. Times had become dangerous, and he was kept apart from other children. My grandfather was a wine maker and merchant. One of his wineries was located behind the house. They were Conservative Jews; my grandfather was an active community member. They were quite wealthy, and he gave generously to the Socialist Party. My father used to say, "The enemies of his enemy were his friends." It was well-known that he gave money to one of the many parties that opposed the Nazis.
August 1933 was the last time the family would see their home. They never returned. My grandparents fled Nazi Germany through Luxembourg and settled in Strasbourg, while the children were put in boarding school. My father was only five when he was sent away. His parents used a bout of tuberculosis as an excuse to send him, along with his sister, Ellen, who was three years older, to Switzerland. Eventually, with permits as tight as they were, they could no longer stay in France. My grandparents moved once again, this time to neutral Belgium.
From 1933 until 1939, my father's formal education was at Belmunt, an exclusive boarding school in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Photographs from that time show an active and happy boy. For both my father and Ellen, school represented a safe haven and a secure home. There was no fear associated with being Jewish. In fact, the school's director, Monsieur Shoch, was a Dutch Jew. My father and Ellen kept in touch with him and his family for the rest of their lives. Not knowing their history, I could never fathom the bond that my father had with his sister and his cousin Pierre. If I had, I would have respected and nurtured it more as an adult. I can hear my father's voice begging my brother and me to get along as children, because we might really need one another someday. I understand now that Ellen and my father's bond was their lifeline. They depended upon each other for survival. Rivalry was not an option.
While at boarding school, they took advantage of all the school could offer. My father became fluent in French, continued learning to read and write in German, and learned to speak English. He made life-long friends who included his sister and the cousin of the king of Spain, Fernando Zobel, and others who would pass through their lives for decades to come, such as Henry Arnhold and even the now notorious Claus von BÃ1/4low. As children they had a sheltered sense of freedom in St. Moritz, surrounded by the wonderful caring atmosphere at Belmunt. It was there more than any other place that my father considered his spiritual and ancestral home.
All of this, before the real running began. A childhood sprinkled with charm all the way through, or so it might seem.
Bombs, Bullets, and Lies
On or about May 6, 1940, my father's family began their sixteen-month odyssey of escape through France, ending with their safe arrival in New York on September 12, 1941. Sixty years to the day later, I would hear my father's halting voice, choked with tears when he called to see if my family and I were safe after the fall of the Twin Towers. As devastated as I felt, I found myself comforting him over the phone like a child in my arms. It broke my heart.
Several years after his death, I sat watching the video testimony about his family's escape that he gave for the Shoah Foundation's Visual History Archive. He had consented to do the video as a gift to Jacob, his grandson, and the foundation had granted me permission to edit it for use on my website. My father sat with his arms at his sides, almost passively. His eyes move down and to the left, as if he's watching his own scratched memory in his mind's eye. His words come slowly, evenly, as he thinks carefully about what he is going to say on camera, mindful not to show any emotion. I watch his every gesture; I try to understand more than he is willing to say. When he slows down or hesitates, filling time with uncharacteristic disfluencies, I edit him, forcing him to clarify his thoughts. I have an hour and a half of video to work with, and it is up to me to pull the best of him out of the footage to build around his story from the details I uncover.
He says, "Times had already become dangerous; we fled from Brussels. We left when the German armies were approaching." During the four days before the Nazis rained bombs on Brussels, my family drove away from the city. They took a head start. Approximately two million Belgians joined them and flowed south into France as Paris herself was being evacuated. In his book Diary of a Witness, Raymond-Raoul Lambert describes the course of events: "We were conquered by Germany in the course of ten days. May 10: Belgium was invaded. May 11: they broke through the Ardennes in Belgium. May 12: bombing of the roads in Belgium, with fleeing civilians hindering troop movements. New tactic: target first the nerve centers from which morale and motivation stem. May 13: the Germans crossed the Meuse [the Belgian border with France]."
Before their escape from Brussels, they carefully packed up their belongings at La Résidence, the elegant residential building where they lived, and left them with the concierge, Monsieur Hubert. They took only the necessities and stored the rest. With a trailer in tow and an American friend, Lewis Kresser, at their side, they traveled literally one step ahead of the enemy, with the Germans at their heels. From the windows of their car they watched Rue de la Loi and their adopted city disappear. City turned to country as they inched towards the coast.
Mr. Kresser, a retired intelligence officer, had been part of the American army during World War I. Why he was in Belgium for the Wehrmacht's invasion is a matter of speculation, though some in my family say he was my grandmother's lover. When I read through my father's letters, I found a paper luggage tag with Kresser's Baltimore address on it and a couple of letters that my father sent him while he was in the army. Remarkably, Kresser must have given those letters to my grandmother as a keepsake.
The five — my father, his sister Ellen, my grandparents, and Kresser — drove along the coastal road toward Dunkirk. My father continues in his interview: "We were in Dunkirk at the time of the first bombardment, in a restaurant having dinner." Food was scarce, and increasingly hard to find. They took cover in the restaurant and finished their meal. Once they left Dunkirk, they continued along the coastal road toward Normandy. My father recounted the many times he sat on the hood of the car at night with the headlights off and would act as my grandfather's eyes leading him down the road. He wore the Jaeger-LeCoultre watch with the glow-in-the-dark face that he had worn as he stood at the Bimah in Brussels' Grande Synagogue in July 1939 for his bar mitzvah. Long ago, my father gave me that watch, which I had restored to its original luster. On the occasion of Jacob's first birthday in 1999, and my adult bat mitzvah, I wore it as I read my Torah portion.
"There was no more border control; refugees were flooding the road. You could barely drive. There were carriages and cars and bicycles," said my father. They were traveling at the rate of about five-to-ten kilometers per hour. Old footage shows civilians silently moving in one direction as the troops moved past them. People are on foot, on carts, in cars; they are stopped by the edge of the roads, eating or just watching. The roads are narrow; everything and everyone moves slowly. Escape was not fast. It seemed orderly, like columns of ants moving toward a destination. The muted, shocked people were following each other, but where to? They were expressionless, homeless, and soon to be stateless refugees. I always look for my family in the footage.
Newsreels show rumbling lorries, tanks, enemy fire, and the ensuing explosions. At times German Stukas wailed through the sky, piercing the silence to announce imminent bomb attacks. Nazi bombs indiscriminately hitting civilian as well as army targets. This is a detail my father chooses to overlook during his account of their escape. Inasmuch as they could, they took control of their situation by planning their route away from the masses.
When night fell, my family would either sit in their car or find a farmhouse where they could spend the night. Along the way, the French police stopped them and brought my grandparents and Mr. Kresser to the station for questioning, while nineteen-year-old Ellen and my fifteen-year-old father were left in the car to wait. This is where my father betrays some emotion, as he remembers the possibility that he could have lost his parents. I cannot imagine what that must have felt like for a child. My father said, "Luckily, they came back."
Reunited, they continued along the Normandy coast. By this time, Mr. Kresser had devised a plan that would ultimately save their lives. They rehearsed it well, and everyone knew their role. Along the road they ran into a British regiment, the North Umberland Fusiliers, who were lost. Ever the intelligence officer, and the only one who spoke perfect English, Kresser befriended them. The soldiers were in need of maps, and my family needed gas. A trade was made. The family declined an offer to put their car in one of the army's trucks because they feared that if caught they would all be killed on the spot. Once they filled their car with gas, my grandfather got back behind the wheel and led the regiment's column with his car until they arrived near the village of Noyelles-sur-Mer, a small town facing the English Channel. Once again they were stopped, this time by the French police, who warned them, "The enemy is near. All civilians off the road!"
My father remembers, "Regardless of the pleading of the British, who said, 'These are friends of ours, they are helping us,' the French repeated, 'All civilians off the road,' and that was that." Stuck on a country road near a river, they could not have known they were in the shadow of General Heinz Guderian's 2nd Panzer Division. They shimmied under their car to shield themselves.
The roads were overcrowded with fleeing refugees as the troops approached. Within an hour of the order to clear the road, firing started and the battle raged around them. The warmth of the car engine tempered the chill they felt from the cooling night air and dried the sweat from the fear that was shaking them through to their core. Moisture in the ground from the previous week's rain dampened my grandmother's tweed suit. She wore that suit every day for six months. There was an unmistakable odor of battle in the air, which mixed with the smells of spring in France. With every round of machine gun fire or tank blast, sound reverberated against the evening sky and shook the ground.
While they lay under their car, the Nazis fought toward the channel coast, leaving casualties in their wake. It was a defining moment in the war. The small French force was hiding across the small river, the Dien, when the firing started. Darkness fell and the French were rapidly outnumbered. They suffered no injuries. Others around them were not so lucky.
"Some people were hurt." My father tells the story calmly. Once the French lost, they found themselves in enemy territory. The battalion of the 2nd Panzer division had passed through Noyelles-sur-Mer on that night, May 20, 1940. They were the first German unit to reach the Atlantic and had moved so far, so fast, in breaking through the French lines, that even they were confused about how to continue their advance. They were so close that the troops could see the estuary of the Somme flowing into the English Channel. In his memoirs, Guderian remarked very dryly that as he passed columns of his advancing troops, they drove through "crowds" of refugees. Five of those refugees were my family — four German Jews — and Mr. Kresser.
The morning after the battle, Kresser sought out the German commander and told him that his troops had behaved like maniacs. Soldiers had broken into their car and stolen their passports and jewelry. "Forget the jewelry," said Kresser. Their stolen identities were the real issue. He asked the commander for the name of his superior in order to lodge a complaint against him for failing to control his men. The commander explained that he couldn't watch his soldiers every minute and that this can happen during a war. With that, a carefully thought-out, well-rehearsed plan was set in motion, and the Germans fell for it.
What actually happened was this: My grandparents had purposely destroyed all of the family's passports and documents that would show their real identities or give any clues to their being Jews in what was now Nazi-occupied France. Mr. Kresser held an American passport, and therefore his identity was secure, since the United States and Germany were not at war yet. The Germans believed our ex — intelligence officer's story, and, to appease him and move them along, the commander issued them a laissez-passer (which literally means "let them pass") that listed all of their new names on it. At some point during the many hours and days spent in that car, they had come up with a plan for taking on new identities. My father describes what happened next:
"I became Walter Kresser. I was from Baltimore, I knew what high school I had gone to, and I knew what courses I had taken. Mr. Kresser was thorough, good at that. ... My sister went to a different high school; we knew that too. Both of us spoke English by then, quite fluently with British accents, but I don't think the Germans would have known the difference. My mother became Mr. Kresser's wife. My father became Mr. Kresser's French chauffeur; his name remained Arthur Wolff. He claimed to have been born in Alsace-Lorraine, which would have been okay. The only thing that might have given him away was his accent, which was of a slightly different variety. We destroyed our real passports. We had papers giving our correct birthplace and everything else. We wouldn't get caught that way. Remember, Mr. Kresser was an ex — intelligence officer and didn't make such mistakes."
With their identities changed, they stayed in Noyelles-sur-Mer for six weeks. They were able to find shelter at a local farmhouse for several days and then moved into the Château de Noyelles, which belonged to French fascists, who had abandoned their home. My father even remembered the family's name but never told us. The château is now a lovely inn. It soon became headquarters for the German army, and everyone was living under one roof, giving a new twist to the expression, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." My father's family lived on the top floor. Omi, my grandmother, never said a word; she was pretending to be shell-shocked and mute. The children spoke only to Kresser.
On September 12, 1991, the Wolff family was honored to have an article published in the Congressional Record commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of our arrival in the United States. The article mentions part of what happened when my family came face-to-face with the German army. "Ellen Wolff Ducat remembers one particular event during their journey, when they were quartered in a castle in Noyelles-sur-Mer, a coastal village northwest of Paris. Platoons of German soldiers also inhabited these grounds, for the estate was being used as a staging area to fan the army throughout the region." Perhaps it was General Guderian himself, who had posted his troops at the château.
One day Ellen returned to the family's car and found that it had been searched and their possessions ransacked. Among the items now left out in the open by the soldiers, she discovered the Hebrew prayer book that had belonged to her grandmother. Although they had destroyed their identities, they couldn't forsake the most incriminating evidence. The Congressional Record continues: "Ellen hid this prayer book, and kept it with her for the rest of the journey. Fortunately, the soldiers who were responsible for the raid were suddenly relocated and the Wolffs fled to safety again." While they were living in Noyelles with the Germans at the château, an officer who was a former actor was rather taken with my aunt Ellen and flirted with her. He eventually told her he understood their story but that he was civilized, and people like him did not make such distinctions. He must have discovered their true identities. They were betrayed by an heirloom.
One afternoon during the early summer, my father was in the garden doing what he loved more than anything, picking berries. Wherever we traveled throughout my childhood, this was something we would do, even if it meant stopping along a highway on the road to St. Godknowswhere! In St. Moritz we would come down from the mountains, go straight to our favorite pastry shop, Hanselmann's, and take afternoon tea. We covered the pastries with the berries that we had collected and thick whipped cream.
Excerpted from "Someday You Will Understand"
Copyright © 2014 Nina Wolff Feld.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note ix
Preface: The Maginot Line of Memory xi
Part 1 Hidden in Plain Sight
Chapter 1 Walking My Father's Labyrinth 7
Chapter 2 Bombs, Bullets, and Lies 10
Chapter 3 Vichy, Lyon, and the Flag of Rags 21
Chapter 4 No Exit: Marseille, Fascist Spain, and the Nightmare Ocean Crossing 28
Chapter 5 Unraveling the Chaos: A Kid at the Dwight School 34
Part 2 The Long Road to Ritchie
Chapter 6 Drafted 45
Chapter 7 The Ritchie Boy Takes On the Pentagon 87
Part 3 Return from Exile
Chapter 8 Coup de Grâce: Vetting War Criminals from Mussolini's Masses 109
Chapter 9 It Is Your Moral Duty: DPs Among the Ruins in Austria and Germany 145
Chapter 10 "I Found Your Gold Bally Shoes" 234
Chapter 11 The Key to the Wine Cellar 253
Chapter 12 Details Are Confusing, and Freedom Is Just Another Word 269
Appendix: To the Editors of The New Yorker: A Letter from Austria 275