One of the greatest forms of patriotism can come from the newest members of our society, who take the oath of citizenship and join the Armed Forces to protect our inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
My father, Walter Wolff, was one of thousands of young refugees who was drafted during World War II and contributed greatly to upholding his new found freedom.
Upon his return from exile in 1945, he came face to face with the horror he would have endured had he not escaped Brussels four days before Hitler's bombs exploded on the city. Coming to terms with the devastation he witnessed in the wake of The Third Reich, he wrote what he called "Gulliver's Travels In The Country of Diamonds."
His account, written in the form of 700 letters home during the war, interspersed the mundane with the horror of the Holocaust. He became one of very few Jewish refugees who managed to reclaim a portion of his former life; a rare opportunity to regain a sense of financial and emotional stability and the sense of freedom which comes with closure.
The letters are riveting, heartbreaking and often very humorous. A charming and resourceful young man, he was 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, ran into old friends and eventually liberated his ancestral home in Landau from collaborators who bought the expropriated home after his aunt was taken to a concentration camp.
During the early postwar period in Europe, he worked as an interrogator ferreting out Nazi war criminals.
Born into a cultured German Jewish family, he was sent to boarding school in Switzerland shortly after the Nuremberg Laws were put into effect, while his parents fled to Belgium. Refuge there proved only temporary as Europe continued its downward spiral into Hitler's vortex of approaching armies.
In May of 1940, four days before Hitler's bombs fell over their adopted city, they along with an American friend, himself a former intelligence officer, began a 16-month escape through occupied Europe to the United States. After a harrowing journey on the S.S. Navemar, they arrived in New York on September 12th 1941, three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
On Memorial Day of 1943, at 18 and still a refugee, he was drafted. He wrote home almost everyday for the duration of the war. In the army he became a citizen and a Ritchie Boy, part of a secret unit of military intelligence comprised of mostly German and Austrian Jewish refugees who had escaped Nazi persecution. They were trained in interrogation and psychological warfare at the secret training camp at Fort Ritchie, Maryland and returned to ferret out war criminals.
The once persecuted returned to prosecute and victims became victors.
Five and a half years after his escape, he returned to Brussels in December of 1945. When he arrived at his old doorstep in search of what remained of his old life, he was unrecognizable to the concierge who knew him as a boy.
During his absence, the Wehrmacht requisitioned 155 Rue de La Loie evicting all of the former tenants to make it their headquarters for the remainder of the war. After learning that the building's concierge, a pharmacist, and an old family friend had gone to great lengths to protect and keep his family's things safe; even enduring an interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo, he recovered most of their belongings and opened them in the safety of the synagogue where he became a Bar Mitzvah just a few years earlier.
The Residence Palace is now used as a summit building for the European Union.
Shortly before his death, he rose from his sick bed and asked me to wait a moment. Suddenly, layers of silence began to peal away. He handed me a green metal box which he had just pulled from a back shelf in his closet. "Here you may as well have these," he said. The box contained letters written on everything from Nazi stationery to his recovered monogrammed Bar Mitzvah stationery.
His writing in and out of exile led me on a journey through his mind and heart to become the writer of a manuscript called Someday You Will Understand: My father's Private WWII. A unique father-daughter duet, it forms a significant addition to the history of the immediate postwar period.
His letters sent me on an odyssey where the true heroes were those he encountered on the long road home. They numbered in the thousands of living and in the millions who perished. Along the way 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.
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