David Moats: Alexander Wolff’s new book, ‘Endpapers,’ looks at his extraordinary family history

Alexander Wolff, long known as a sportswriter, has written a new book far removed from the world of sports. Photo by Clara Wolff

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Alexander Wolff, long known as a sportswriter, has written a new book far removed from the world of sports that puts into perspective the disturbing currents of ethnic nationalism and anti-immigrant extremism that have unsettled much of the world. 

He has done so by tracing his own family’s remarkable history, which was shaped directly and forever by the most malevolent distillation of those same currents — the cataclysmic rise and fall of Nazi Germany.

Wolff has lived in Cornwall since 2002 and for many years was a writer for Sports Illustrated. In that role, he focused largely on basketball and social issues related to sports. One of his books, “The Audacity of Hoop,” explored the role of basketball in shaping Barack Obama’s identity and life. For a time, Wolff was also part owner of the Vermont Frost Heaves, a professional basketball team based in Barre.

His new book, “Endpapers,” published by Atlantic Monthly Press, is something else entirely. It recounts an extraordinary family history, with his grandfather, Kurt Wolff, as a central figure. As a young man living in Leipzig, Germany, Kurt became one of the most important literary publishers in Europe, bringing out authors who pioneered some of the great works of 20th-century literature, including Franz Kafka. 

Eventually, the rise of Nazism forced Kurt and his wife, Helen, to flee Germany, partly because of Kurt’s Jewish lineage on his mother’s side but also because he was the publisher of books the Nazis saw as decadent and later took delight in burning. Following seven years in France, Switzerland and Italy, Kurt and Helen escaped in 1940 on one of the last ships out of Lisbon to America. 

In New York, Kurt and Helen established Pantheon Books and became influential publishers of important works, such as “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak and the novels of Gunther Grass. 

That in itself is an interesting story: Important German publisher forced to flee, bringing his European sensibility and cultural awareness to America. 

But when he fled, he left behind his first wife, Elizabeth, and their two children, Niko and Maria. With the onset of World War II, Niko was drafted into the German army, serving on the Eastern and Western fronts. Toward the end of the war, the American military captured him, and he became a prisoner of war. When he was released, he returned to his family in Munich, but what he most wanted to do was to go to America for graduate work in chemistry. 

Thus, Niko’s life is another important strand of the story — one that ultimately leads to Princeton, N.J.; Rochester, N.Y.; and to Vermont.

What makes “Endpapers” more than a family memoir is Wolff’s exploration of how a great civilization devolved into delusion and madness and how, in consequence, people have been compelled to “work through questions of guilt, shame and responsibility.” 

Alexander Wolff's new book, "Endpapers," looks at his extraordinary family history. Photo by Clara Wolff

Niko, Alex’s father, did not talk much about his role in the war, preferring to get on with his life in America as a successful chemist and family man. Nor did Alex feel like pressing him. 

Thus, Alex’s mission in writing the book was, in part, to consider how each generation learns to take on responsibility for the past. He quotes political philosopher Susan Nieman: “You cannot choose your inheritance any more than you can choose your parents. You can only choose your relationship to them.” 

Wolff describes the “stumbling stones” that have been placed in the sidewalks of Berlin outside the homes of people who were victims of the Nazis. They protrude slightly from the sidewalk and bear the names of Nazi victims. Passersby literally stumble over these reminders of the past.

“If only Americans were as scrupulous and imaginative in the excavation of our past,” Wolff writes. He isn’t calling for penance, which he says implies personal implication. Rather, he says the Germans who underwrite the stumbling stones, memorializing people they never knew, “are engaging in atonement, an act of repair.” 

But Wolff suggests something more, using a German word, Erbsunde, “which means both original sin and inherited sin, double duty that highlights the binding of one generation to another. Perhaps there we could find the basis for an American Erinnerungskultur (remembrance culture) that puts a current-day frame around a Confederate monument and regards the Stars and Bars as a homegrown swastika.”

Alex Wolff moved with his family to Berlin in 2017, where he spent a year researching his family’s history. At the time, Donald Trump was fomenting anti-immigrant hysteria in America, and initially, Wolff thought immigration would be the focus of his story. Then, three days after the Wolffs arrived in Berlin, “ethnonationalists” engineered a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and killing a counterprotester. 

Soon thereafter, Germans were due to go to the polls, passing judgment on the policies of Angela Merkel, who had welcomed refugees to Germany. Wolff found that Germany’s extremist right-wing party was “dog-whistling the doctrine of ‘blood and soil’” that was at the heart of Nazi ideology. 

“For most of my life,” he wrote, “I’ve been aware of the stakes of a choice like this for Germany. And here it lies before me, at the same time America seems to stand at a similar crossroads.”

It was one of the most disastrous events in history: Germany, one of the most richly cultured and advanced nations of the world, devolving into savagery and hate under the Nazis. The Wolff family was a representative example of the German “haute bourgeoisie,” with its “cultural patrimony of art, music and books” for whom ethnic hatred and the politics of violence were alien. 

Kurt’s father, Leonhard, was a conductor, teacher and composer in Bonn, and Kurt was exposed early in life to the heritage of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. When Kurt was 9 years old, the white-bearded Johannes Brahms came to the Wolff house on the occasion of Clara Schumann’s funeral and can be seen in a family photo surrounded by members of Kurt’s family.

Despite his privileged background, Kurt was drafted into the army in World War I, and his diaries recorded his horror at the experience: “One cannot form out of chaos sentences with a subject and a predicate, cannot (should not) transform the madness into meaning.” After the war, Kurt carried on as publisher during years of hardship in the 1920s. The horror of World War II and the Holocaust was to come.

Alex Wolff offers some insights into how the madness that enveloped his father and grandfather’s life had come about. He quotes the political philosopher Hannah Arendt (a friend of Kurt and Helen’s), who wrote, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience), and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought), no longer exist.”

Thus, the world of “alternative facts,” as promoted by former President Trump, is the breeding ground for authoritarianism. 

Wolff also cites journalist Sebastian Haffner, describing the state of mind of a generation of Germans following World War I. They had lived through years of “poverty, hunger, death, chaos, and peril,” all of which provided “raw material for their deeper emotions, for love and hate, for joy and sorrow.” After the war, they no longer had that raw material, and they were bereft. “They had never learned to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worthwhile, how to enjoy it and make it interesting.”

In America, we have become acquainted with “deaths of despair” among dispirited, drug-addicted, resentful segments of the population. 

Kurt and Niko were able to escape the despair and impoverishment of postwar Europe because they had the education, determination and means to make it to America and to succeed on their chosen paths. They had the resources within themselves “to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worthwhile.” 

Kurt and Helen founded Pantheon Books in their apartment, and eventually, the publication of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s best-selling “Gift From the Sea” put their company on a sound footing. 

Niko received a doctorate in chemistry from Princeton and went to work at DuPont, RCA and Xerox. His son, Alex, the son of an immigrant father, felt called upon to define himself as an American. He didn’t reject his cultural patrimony, taking up the cello, as expected. (His grandfather, also a cellist, had played chamber music with the Swiss painter Paul Klee.) But like the sons of immigrants before him, Alex found in sports a way of telling the American story. So after majoring in history at Princeton, he went to work at Sports Illustrated.

His family’s story is an immigrant story, just as the stories of most of us are. In the case of Alex Wolff, his father, the immigrant, ended up moving to East Barnard and then to Norwich, and thus it was that Alex met his wife-to-be, Vanessa, at Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich. (He jokes about the store’s motto: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”) And now they live in an old farmstead in Cornwall.

And yet, how far removed is he from that gathering where Brahms showed up or from the savage movement that waged war on everything that Brahms represented — including the life of culture carried on by Kurt Wulff?

To read the story of the Wolff family is to wake to the need for a fuller understanding of the human condition. Everyone has a story. One person’s grandfather came over in steerage from Poland. Another person’s father arrived on a work visa from India. Someone else came across the desert from Mexico, or came over in a slave ship from Africa. Someone else’s family has been farming in Vermont for five generations. 

Not everyone’s story is as replete with famous names as the Wolffs’ story is, but each is a human story worthy of the respect that is trammeled by movements that elevate one race or nationality over another. 

Alex Wolff wasn’t surprised by what happened in Washington on Jan. 6. It was hard not to think of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, even if we are comforted by the notion that American institutions and the American habit of democracy are strong. Still, our nightmarish past is not so distant, and remembrance becomes all the more important whenever humane values come under attack.

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David Moats

About David

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Email: [email protected]

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