The child of an immigrant often bears witness to startling moments of intercedence, where their parent’s long-buried past suddenly ruptures the present. Alexander Wolff knows these occurrences; he writes of them in “Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape and Home.” His father, a German émigré living in the U.S., withheld much of his German life from his children. But every now and then, while listening to Schubert or observing a slant of light, Wolff would notice a memory play out on his father’s face. “I’ve come to believe that each of these moments thrived in a kind of emotional negative space,” Wolff writes. “The more beautiful the sensation at hand, the more starkly it threw the off-setting memory into relief. And with us he was scrupulous about sharing only the beauty.”
Wolff’s father, Niko, came of age in Germany during the Third Reich. Forced into the Hitler Youth at his Bavarian boarding school, he was conscripted into the army as a Luftwaffe driver. After the war, his father, Kurt Wolff, used his considerable connections as a New York publisher to help 27-year-old Niko emigrate to the U.S. Assimilation came relatively easy; as a young white man of European descent Niko never really needed to explain his German past. And for decades, all Wolff knew about his father’s time in the Wehrmacht was that Niko hadn’t knowingly killed anyone. But after his father’s death, the next generation inquiring at his heels — his young daughter asking, “Isn’t there some way Opa could have been a spy?” — he decides it’s time to understand his father’s role in the war. In the summer of 2017, with the Trump presidency and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville front of mind, he moved to Berlin to dig into his father’s past. His year of research is chronicled beautifully in “Endpapers.” Wolff, a staff writer at Sports Illustrated for over three decades, powerfully uses the present to lace together the biographies of his father and paternal grandfather.
Towering at the center of the story is the grandfather, Kurt Wolff, best known in the U.S. as the publisher of Pantheon Books, founded in 1942 with his second wife Helen when they lived in exile in New York. They introduced American readers to numerous contemporary European authors, including Boris Pasternak, Günter Grass, and Umberto Eco. But Kurt’s Pantheon days came later in life. Born in Bonn, Germany, raised with a sophisticated cultural education, he founded the eponymous Kurt Wolff Verlag in 1913. Understanding that his twenty years of publishing in Germany made him a target for the Nazis, he managed to narrowly escape with Helen and their son Christian in 1933, moving around Europe until eventually securing passage to the U.S. Meanwhile, back in Germany, Kurt’s first wife, Elisabeth Merck, and their two children, Niko and Maria, were in a country ramping up for war. Through their Merck family connections (Merck pharmaceuticals, Wolff comes to find, profited off the Nazis) both children were able to secure Aryan papers. From there, their paths sharply diverge from their father’s.
If war, exile, geographical distance, American myopia, and the comforts of upper-middle class life separated the three generations, Wolff’s book attempts to bring them together. In the spirit of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, the work of confronting the past undertaken by generations of post-war Germans, Wolff uses his skills as a reporter to sift through reams of correspondences, journals, archives, and interviews to expose the darkest parts of his family’s history. If he had hoped to exonerate his father, he instead finds that Niko was just another reluctant Wehrmacht soldier, hoping to get through his time at war. In one of the book’s more disturbing revelations, Wolff shares letters Niko sends to his mother in which he details the lavish meals he’s enjoying as a soldier, apparently only dimly aware that as part of the Nazi’s Hunger Plan, his rations are starving 4.2 million Soviet civilians to death.
As the discoveries accumulate, Wolff is astonished by how little his father told him. But he catches himself. Wolff writes: “He never told me: I never asked,” binding father and son. Ultimately the real energy of “Endpapers” comes not from Wolff’s impressive reconstruction of his father and grandfather’s biographies, but from the way he adds himself to the narrative, bringing us back to the present, to Merkel and Trump, to the stumbling stones in Berlin that mark a victim of the Nazis, to questions of his own privilege. “Endpapers” is more than a book of history; it’s a transnational, intergenerational reckoning. And by the end of the book Wolff asks deeper and more existential questions, in particular probing the German concept of Bildung, which Wolff defines as the commitment to “a commitment to “lifelong learning and a cultural patrimony of art, music, and books.”
“But at the risk of blaming the victim, for Kurt was surely that, I now wonder if, in their devotion to Bildung, my ancestors helped blind Germans to the obligations of citizenship, which include getting out of the salon to stand up for the neighbor down the street,” Wolff writes. “Didn’t the Bildungsbrgertum propagate 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?”
One can’t help but wonder if Wolff is also asking these questions of himself and other Americans. How have our comforts rendered us blind to our responsibility to one another? What kind of citizenship does this era call for?
Shuchi Saraswat is a writer and a nonfiction editor at AGNI. She founded the Transnational Literature Series at Brookline Booksmith and served as its director from 2018-2020.
Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home
Atlantic Monthly Press, 366 pages, $28