Shortly before his death, Walter Wolff handed his daughter, Nina Wolff Feld, a green metal file box. In it was a treasure trove of wartime letters written by him during his time as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer to his family. Feld, a writer and artist born and bred in New York, translated the letters into a new book, “Someday You Will Understand: My Father’s Private World War II” (Arcade Publishing).
Walter Wolff, who was fluent in five languages and went on to found and run the home furnishings company Bon Marché in New York, was born in Germany in 1924. As Hitler rose to power, Wolff and his family, which included his sister and parents, were forced to keep moving until they settled in neutral Belgium. But on the eve of the Nazi invasion in 1940 they began a harrowing 16-month escape through occupied Europe, arriving in New York in September 1941, just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In his letters, Wolff wrote endlessly, documenting both his training and experience as one of the well-known Ritchie Boys, an elite group of U.S. Intelligence officers known for their expertise in psychological warfare and interrogation. Wolff’s niche was vetting war criminals during the early postwar period. Many soldiers, like Wolff, were Jewish and had escaped from countries occupied by the Nazis. They enlisted or were drafted into the U.S. Army, where they became staunch defenders of American democracy shortly after running for their lives.
Feld crafted the history of her father’s life from these 700 letters, which were written on anything Wolff could get his hands on, from purloined Third Reich stationery to Wolff’s own recovered monogrammed bar mitzvah stationary. All the letters were written in French and translated by Feld.
The Forward’s Jill Werman Harris caught up with Feld in New York to discuss her new book on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Jill Werman Harris: Growing up, did you know about your father’s wartime experiences?
Nina Wolff Feld: It’s sort of embarrassing, but I never really put it all together. I would hear snippets about helping the British army find their way, or playing tricks on German soldiers while living in a chateau in France, but I didn’t have a sense about the context. When I was dragged to movies about the Nazis, I didn’t really get why I was there. Whenever I had a question about it, my father would answer, “Someday you’ll understand.”
What impact did his escape from Nazi-occupied Europe have on his role as a U.S. Intelligence officer?
It was the classic persecuted-return-to-prosecute narrative. The Nazis had been [hunting] his family, and as a U.S. intelligence officer he had the chance to go after the very people who tried to kill him. It was definitely a chance to get even, but many years later, during his video testimony for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, part of the University of Southern California, he said, “I wasn’t the killing kind.” Still, it gave him a sense of closure that the rest of his family couldn’t have.
What did it mean to your father to have been a Ritchie Boy?
You have to understand this group of soldiers. Many of them had recently escaped from concentration camps. Others had their entire families wiped out. Until they found their place at Camp Ritchie, they were considered enemy combatants in the eyes of the Americans. This was a kind of unique brotherhood. They were chosen for this unit for many reasons, but importantly, unlike their American-born counterparts, they knew their enemy and the cultural idiosyncrasies intimately. These were the best men to infiltrate the psyche of their prisoners.
For six weeks your father’s family lived in the very chateau (in Noyelles-sur-Mer, in northern France) that was the operational headquarters for the German army in the area.
My family fled Brussels with an American friend, Louis Kresser, who had been an intelligence officer during World War I. He invented a life and history for them to pose as a typical American family caught in the crosshairs of war. In France they discovered an empty chateau and moved in. A short time later the German army took it over. Because the U.S. had not yet entered the war, they let them stay. My grandfather pretended to be the Alsatian chauffeur; my grandmother pretended to be shell-shocked and mute, and my father and his sister, who spoke English, pretended to be Mr. Kresser’s kids. It actually worked until an officer found their prayer book. They escaped by painting “USA” all over their car with my grandmother fashioning an American flag out of rags, and off they went!
Your father displayed a lot of chutzpah.
Yes, he was like a Jewish John Wayne! As a soldier, he went back to his ancestral home in Germany and reclaimed it. He literally banged on the door and basically said, “This house is mine!” He was able to take back that part of his life. Most refugees obviously never get that chance.
Your father wrote prolifically. Were you surprised to discover so many letters?
My father considered himself his family’s personal war correspondent. They were meant for anyone in his family, and he specifically asked his mother to save them. He not only wrote over 700 letters, but he amassed over 200 photographs as well.
Your father’s story is a World War II story, but it is also a story about transformation.
Once he saw the devastation firsthand and began to understand the extent of the atrocities committed, he became a strong advocate [of] displaced persons. They were the surviving remnant, and he could not bear to see them treated badly. The more I came to understand his past, the more heroic he became in my eyes.
This interview has been edited for style and length.