December 25th, 1945:
If you have a good memory you will recognize this stationery – I once received it as a birthday present – 7 or 8 years ago. It so amused me to find it, that I kept it to bring with me.
From the moment at which my father and his family slammed the door on their lives to narrowly escape Brussels, four days before Hitler’s bombs exploded on their adopted city, until the moment when he finally arrived back to his building on Christmas Day, five and half years later, EVERYTHING worked in staggering synchronicity to bring him full circle. His return from exile so soon after the end of the war allowed him a sense of CLOSURE – the sort of CLOSURE which lay forever beyond the reach of most victims and surviving refugees of the Holocaust.
The lessons of the past, a chronicle of one refugee’s odyssey and a family who beat the odds is reflected here and should serve as a guide for the present as well as toward a peaceful future devoid of war and genocide.
The ultimate goal is, in effect, to unite human beings from all religions and backgrounds so that the atrocities of the Holocaust may be revisited within the context of current events, insuring that the most fundamental human rights remain at the highest level of our consciousness at all times.
My aim is to use the tragedy of the Shoah and the singularity of this genocide and take my responsibility to “ NEVER FORGET” and put it toward instilling the value of “NEVER AGAIN” in the hearts and minds of a most valuable asset; the next generation of youth who may be swayed toward religious extremism.
I believe that one approach to countering terrorism is to counter ideological propaganda through Holocaust education. The evolution of Hitler’s State sanctioned ideology, grew from acts of terrorism into the worst genocide the world has ever known; with the end goal of extinguishing a global population based upon their genealogy.
My approach is to draw comparisons from the Third Reich methodology to that of ISIL and DAECH to heighten awareness of the similarities between today’s extremists and those of the Nazi era.
We may speak of the shooting of young Malala in Pakistan who was standing up for the right of all young women everywhere to be educated, or the ongoing atrocities committed by Bashar al Assad in Syria, to the conflicts and uprisings in the greater Middle-East in Iraq against the Yazizdis – to Rwanda, to Darfur and elsewhere in Africa, reaching as far as North Korea.
The reality is, that lessons of the Shoah, and the stories of those who lived through it, should resonate as deeply today as tomorrow and forever.
WE – must be the gatekeepers of these memories, while continuing the fight to protect humanity and insure that war crimes and genocide become a thing of the past; so that the future may bring an end to political and religious tyranny.
The question for my father was never whether he would fight during the war, but, how he would fight his enemy to defeat him? His war, during which he used every ounce of his intellect, was a war of intelligence; requiring him, more often than not, to suppress his Jewish identity. This gave him the freedom to act on a moment’s notice while hiding in plain sight.
Unlike the average American soldier, he and the young Jewish refugee soldiers like him, who became known as The Ritchie Boys, had a head start in understanding their enemy; they were European refugees who had fled the Nazis.
In certain cases, these once stateless refugees had lost loved ones to Hitler’s war against the Jews, returned as intelligence officers to vet and send war criminals to prosecution. These boys grew into seasoned men who compensated for their lack of brawn with their intelligence and life experience.
In my father’s case, he always felt that the army was a period of calm and safety by comparison to his16 month escape out of Nazi occupied Europe, while he and his family managed to dodge bombs and bullets before arriving to New York in September of 1941, just 3 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In fact, the Spanish freighter on which they arrived, the Navemar, one of the last refugee ships to leave Europe, was bombed and sunk by the Germans on its return across the Atlantic. Theirs was a truly miraculous voyage out of a somewhat benevolent Spain, ruled by Franco, a somewhat benevolent dictator with regard to the Jews.
SOMEDAY YOU WILL UNDERSTAND: My Father’s Private WWII brings us front and center on a unique story of survival and closure. My father’s psychological coping mechanisms were, without a doubt exceptional, and they were what allowed him to find normal within the boundaries of his circumstances. He was able to compartmentalize his anguish, work around the unbearable, and as a result, make a personal contribution outside of his military duties. He knew that it could have very easily been him that perished, or walked from the Gates of Hell at Liberation. As a result he felt a special connection to the Displaced People.
As my father saw for himself the consequences of that war, and of the genocide, he became a ardent advocate for the Surviving Remnant of the Holocaust. He encountered Displaced People, refugees and survivors by the tens of thousands as he made his way north through Italy. One of his first assignments upon arriving to Caserta, just north of Naples, was to translate part of the German army in Italy’s Order of Surrender, as well as to vet war criminals from the masses at POW camps in Ghedi and Verona, before making his way to Austria and Germany.
All along his war path, he was simultaneously confronted with the disastrous results of nazism and rescuing refugees and displaced people.
My father decided to take matters into his own hands when he appealed first to his best friend’s mother and then directly to Eleanor Roosevelt to improve conditions at the former concentration camps turned into refugee camps. And then, when he was posted in Vienna, he encountered the man who would become the greatest Nazi hunter of all time, the President of the Executive Committee for Jews in that area – Simon Wiesenthal, whose office was coincidentally located just a few buildings down from his.
Then just a survivor on a mission, my father consulted Wiesenthal about the refugees, the conditions at the camps, and what he could do to help. It was sometimes easy to forget that before the war, the survivors came from all walks of life, were not stateless or destitute, and as a result, on the verge of starvation and of death.
My father turned the army mail system on its ear to procure as many CARE packages as he could. As the winter of 1945 approached, an already unbearable situation was made worse by the oncoming privation of food, cold weather and illness.
His personal war effort raised well over 1600 packages, which he personally delivered when he organized a Chanukah party in Gmunden, Germany, during that first November after the war. Although he complained that he didn’t really want to go, not only did he remember it for the rest of his life; it would prove an enduring memory for generations to come; as at least one of the men who attended the party (a survivor named Jakob Artman), kept a photograph of my father for the rest of his life. After his death, his daughter would find it in a special box hidden amongst his personal things. She eventually tracked down my father in New York and called to thank him.
Today’s BREAKING NEWS concerning the refugee crisis seems to have popped randomly up on our timeline, but if we look back and beyond the headlines, we can see that this second biggest wave of migration in human history, this genocidal war against the Syrian people, the uptick in global terrorism caused mainly by the religious extremism of DAECH and other prominent groups such as Boko Haram and Al Shabab, that we are now faced with the danger of porous borders and the birth of home grown extremism here in the United States, which challenges not only our values but the very notion of our civil liberties.
Islamic converts to extremism do not only pose a very serious threat to the EU where the freedom to come and go within the Schengen Area of the 26 participating european countries is at stake; but a very serious threat to our national security, to that of the African states where attacks are becoming the norm rather than the exception; and to the Muslim-majority states, throughout central and southeast Asia. History, therefore, is an eternal cycle and is not random at all.
In my opinion, the ultimate goal of the Jihadi extremists is to indiscriminately attack all people, all over the world, and includes moderate muslims, catholics, Jews and any other religious group in their path. This relates therefore directly to Lemkin’s definition of genocide: the roots of which are the words genos, (Greek for family, tribe or race) and -cide (the Latin word for kill).
Are we not all members of the family of man? This is genocide.
Some say that we are in the midst of a 3rd Jihad, a third world war, which according to them, is a continuation of an ideal dating back to the birth of the Islamic Empire in the 7th Century. The desire to force the world to live as a global caliphate, under Sharia law, has its origins in this phenomenon, and is being carried out by an army of young people, some of whom are barely out of their adolescence. Once again, we are caught in the vortex of history.
Indeed, the fight against terrorism, is not against just a bunch of DAECH barbarians on a killing spree throughout Europe, but because they have spread across the continents; battlefronts have blurred and diplomacy issues dating back to the close of World War Two have resulted in a political climate reminiscent of the Cold War, or the proxy war which is unfolding in Syria between Russia and Turkey.
In fact, it goes back a century to the The Sykes–Picot Agreement, a secret agreement between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the French Third Republic to protect against the assent of the Russian Empire at the close of the Ottoman Empire. The agreement shaped the region by defining the of Iraqi and Syrian borders. Many believe that these decisions are what led directly to the perennial conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The DAECH strategy pits nation against nation, in an increasingly xenophobic climate and would like to place the 1.6 billion mostly moderate faithful Muslims under their yoke. These Muslims comprise over 22% of the global population. DAECH is trying to radicalize them, through the use of their propaganda, and by putting as much pressure on these moderate Muslims as possible; in hopes that they will blacken a grey zone and further polarize western nations by putting them in further jeopardy. The reality is that the Jihadists are waging an all out war against innocent people.
This brings up the subject of the similarity between DAECH and the Nazis. These two criminal entities share a common objective. Wipe out the Jews, wipe Israel off the map, and take every civil society hostage by galvanizing the Muslim extremist Diaspora.
To quote an article in the Washington Post written just days after the Paris attacks, “The strategy is explicit. The Islamic State explained after the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine that such attacks compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the gray zone themselves . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens. The group calculates that a small number of attackers can profoundly shift the way that European society views its 44 million Muslim members and, as a result, the way European Muslims view themselves. Through this provocation, it seeks to set conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West.”
Propaganda and terror campaigns. This is where we begin to see a similarity between the Nazis effort and the recruitment strategy of DAECH and their common conviction of superiority. The difference between the two is the development of technology in the information age and cyberspace. The disbursement of information now works at the speed of light multiplying across the globe through the internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp; which are not only their route but their main forum.
Cyberspace and the internet are the newest theater of war. Not only must we must learn to move as fast as the terrorists; but we must institute a collaboration between the networks and Social Media and all areas of law enforcement; to strategically wipe out their communication capabilities, and their “Mafioso” means of raising the 2 billion dollars a year which they extort to run their campaign of terror.
This means that we must hit them on at least two fronts in hopes of keeping the use of force to a minimum. One: remove their ability to function over the internet, two: sever their financial capabilities. This will cause human casualties but could save masses.
Why then, must we continue to gather the testimonies of survivors and continue to educate about the Holocaust? Perhaps because history is a cycle. Because, if we take for example the Yazidis, a 4,000 year old religion, and among the oldest in Mesopotamia; the day before the Paris attacks in November of 2015, The United States Holocaust Museum issued a report stating that the attack by ISIS on the over 500,000 followers living in Iraq is considered as a crime of genocide. The Islamic State performed targeted massacres, rape and the enslavement of the Yazidi women as well as forcing young men and boys to join and fight for them or they would be killed.
What is the point of continued education on the subject of the Holocaust if success seems unattainable and war and genocide are cyclical?
Propaganda and acts of terrorism. Hitler’s ideology and a hatred against a people ignited the Holocaust in much the same way that this holy war is being directed at the contemporary world. Holocaust education is a form of condemnation.
We must draw upon the similarities of these two periods in the history of humanity to educate future generations and to look to that most egregious period in history so that we may find coping mechanisms to fight this and future waves of terror.
Most of the time we are content to leave behind our family’s history as we go about our busy and stressful lives, in pursuit of a better life. We learn not to dwell on the past. Pieces are left in real or imaginary boxes in attics or closets, or safely buried deep in our subconscious.
Occasionally, the capriciousness of fate steps in to remind us of its importance, and can lead us down a road of discovery. Memory is tenacious. Clues are left by intention or coincidence for us to discover in our own time.
My time came when my father handed me a green metal box, filled with 700 letters he had written home to his family while he served in the US Army during and in the early aftermath of the second world war.
I am the gatekeeper of my father’s memories. By telling his story, my hope is, that on some level I can make a small contribution against revisionist history.
To that end, it requires us not only to read history, but to FEEL its impact. To feel history we need to hear the stories of those who experienced it first hand. I am commanded to never forget. Each and every “Survivor’s” story is vital and must be told, because for every story there are Holocaust deniers, such as Iran’s former President Ahmadinejad, a fervent denier who fed his propaganda to the masses under the guise of education. His replacement, Hassan Rouhani is said to fall on the moderate side of denial. Perhaps a small improvement, but as long as they and others have a voice and the freedom to express themselves, it is imperative that every story become part of a shield against Anti Semitism and to that end a shield against genocide no matter who the intended victims are.
As the quantity of Holocaust survivors who can tell their stories first hand diminish daily, the onus is on us, their children and grandchildren, to tell it for them as accurately as possible, and work toward ending current crimes against humanity no matter where they occur or pose a threat to the fate of man.
Ours is one more account to put a nail in the coffin of every denier who questions the veracity of the Holocaust. Politics and laws do not seem to prevent crimes against humanity but perhaps through the lens of survivors and their descendants we may serve as a lens through which to see history.
My father’s letters sent me on a journey through his unspoken past on an odyssey where the true heroes were those my father encountered on the long road from exile to return, who numbered in the thousands of survivors and in the millions who perished.
Along the road,I found one other hero, the unsung hero who was my father, if only because he kept his silence and allowed me to have an unburdened childhood; unencumbered by the weight of his past.
The letters were primarily written to his mother and family but they were intended for anyone in their circle who was interested. When my son was 8, I handed him the first stack of translated letters when he ran out of reading material for school. A few minutes later I heard him laughing in his room.
“DO YOUR HOMEWORK!” I yelled to him.
He yelled back, “I AM MOM! I’M READING WHAT YOU GAVE ME AND I FEEL LIKE GRANDPA IS IN THE ROOM WITH ME!”
Tears welled in my eyes and I ran into his room, hugged him and promised to translate every last letter – FOR HIM. I am a painter. I studied architecture. The last paper I wrote was in college, but I must tell you that from the moment I began to translate, the words flowed like water. Every child knows their parent’s voice. I found mine in his.
The letters were written from the perspective of a young surviving refugee, in exile if you will, who chronicled his life in the army on an almost daily basis. We text, he wrote. He spoke several times of needing to record his thoughts, and use his voice as a vehicle. The letters were written on the most amazing stationery, including Nazi letterhead in full color.
Ultimately, he wrote what I think is the most incredible of all of the letters, Nazi stationery not withstanding, on his personally monogrammed stationery, given to him on the occasion of his bar mitzvah, which he found upon recovering his family’s belongings in Brussels that Christmas Day in 1945.
I find it tremendously moving because it gives a precise accounting of every item he found and what exactly he was going to do to insure their safe return to their rightful owners. He had all of their things brought to the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) office located in the building next door to the Grand Synagogue where he was Bar Mitzvah.
Coincidence or fate?
His journey took him full circle and I am certain that he never forgot a thing. One of his last and certainly the most chilling revelation came when he said, upon hearing an alarm go off over the hospital’s loudspeaker,
- When I hear that sound, all I can think is:
- I’M A JEW, I’M A JEW, I’M A JEW!
The letters can at times be misinterpreted as mundane, but to read between the lines is to disambiguate frustration from banality. It is there, at the space between the commas, at the pause between his words, where I could reflect upon the unsaid. What my father chose not to convey served to sharpen the larger picture of events unfolding around him.
This allowed history into focus.
Where he gave voice to his experiences during his training and later upon his return to Europe during the early aftermath of the war, my job evolved into giving voice to his evasiveness.
Four years after arriving in the U.S., my father Walter Wolff, who by then was fluent in German and French and conversant in Spanish with some knowledge of Italian, returned to Europe as one of the Ritchie Boys an exclusive branch of the army which developed into what we now know as the CIA.
The once persecuted returned to prosecute, sending many to trial in Nuremberg. He was barely twenty years old.
His letters are riveting, heartbreaking, and often very humorous. He was a charming and resourceful young man, a keen observer of the turmoil and settling of scores that occurred at the end of the war. He returned to the places of his childhood, he ran into old friends, he eventually liberated his ancestral home in Landau from collaborators who bought the expropriated house after his aunt was taken to Gurs, a French concentration camp.
Working as an interrogator in Italy, Austria, Belgium, Germany and France, he walked around at times like a Jewish John Wayne with a yellow Mogen David glued to his gun holster. As a Ritchie Boy one of his first tasks upon returning to Europe as I said, was to read and classify Mussolini’s documents, and translate one part of the orders of the Allied Forces to the Nazis in Northern Italy for unconditional surrender.
He was a remarkable young man, with tremendous courage and a sense of humor to balance his steadfast determination.
He was determined to make his way home, back to Brussels, to see what was left of their old lives. By the time he returned to Rue de la Loi, he had grown from a gangly teenager into an American Intelligence officer with movie star good looks. When he arrived to his building at 155 Rue de la Loi, he immediately recognized the concierge.
Are you Monsieur Huber he asked. The man looked at him and said, What’s it to you?!
A moment later his wife came out from behind him, screamed and almost dropped her mop and bucket when she saw him. She knew exactly who my father was. The only thing Monsieur Huber could manage to say was, “I thought you all dead, because you never gave me any sign that you were alive.”
Incredibly, he recovered most of his family’s belongings after learning that Monsieur Huber, a pharmacist named Demeure, and an old family friend had gone to great lengths to protect and keep his family’s things. One of these people even endured an interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo at the infamous headquarters on Avenue Louise in Brussels.
My father was one of very few Jewish refugees who managed to reclaim a portion of their former lives and finances, giving his family a rare opportunity to regain a sense of financial and emotional stability.
After the war, he graduated from Columbia University and opened the renown furniture store chain Bon Marché in New York, and in Washington DC.
BEFORE I CLOSE, IF I MAY, I WOULD LIKE TO READ YOU A SHORT EXCERPT FROM MY MANUSCRIPT:
30 July 1945
Dear Mrs. Roosevelt,
Enclosed you will find a rather interesting “publication,” if I may call it that. Unfortunately, I could get only these fragments, but it amused me so much that I thought it worthwhile to send it to you.
At the same time, I would like to take the liberty to inform you that, while Polish,Yugoslav, and Italian refugees are generously taken care of, the remnants of the European Jewry are pushed around from camp to camp, with nobody taking any real interest in them. I was even told about some officers stating that we had come a little too early—had we come later we would have had fewer of these Jews to worry about. This, I trust, is not the general attitude of all concerned, but it does reflect a certain trend.
I was also told by some of these poor people, in a camp near Munich, that they had no contact with any American relief organization so far. The same appears to be true in the case of the Salzburg camp. I am telling you all of this in the hope that a reminder from a person of your prestige and standing should prod some of the organizations (whose moral duty it is to look after these unfortunate people) into action.
M/Sgt.Walter C.Wolff 32908561
H.Q. Documents Center G-2 USFA /A.P.O. 777 USArmy
I found no record of a response to his letter, but Eleanor Roosevelt’s undying commitment shows in her speeches before Congress, in her My Day syndicated column, and mostly by the work she did with the UNRRA, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, for which she took a great part in the drafting of the Declaration of Human Rights. She wrote, “There is in Europe at the present time a group of 100,000 displaced persons—the miserable, tortured, terrorized Jews who have seen members of their families murdered and their homes ruined, and who are stateless people, since they hate the Germans and no longer wish to live in the countries where they have been despoiled of all that makes life worth living….
My grandmother Omi, was highly critical of the letter to the former First Lady and found the letter to be naïve. My father wrote back to her that he wasn’t asking for her opinion. He had chosen to send the letter home first in order to avoid the still-prying eyes of the censors, the idea being that his family would then forward it to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Omi failed to understand that my father—along with every other Jewish soldier and the thirty or so Jewish chaplains in Germany and Austria directly after the war who took part in both the liberation of the camps and the military occupation—were the first American Jews to lay eyes upon the survivors as they made their exodus into the safety of the American Zone of Occupation. They were in the unique position of being the eyes and ears for a world just beginning to understand the extent of the atrocities committed and for whom the words which we currently use such as genocide, Shoah and Holocaust did not exist in that era. Thank You.