Arts & Leisure

Wolff tells personal story of immigration in shadow of Nazism

ALEXANDER WOLFF STANDS in front of his cow-barn-turned-studio at his home in Cornwall. This is where Wolff, who retired from a 36-year career with Sports Illustrated, most recently wrote “Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home,” which was published this month.

After 36 years as a staff writer for the weekly magazine Sports Illustrated, Alexander Wolff was pretty accustomed to the break-neck pace of journalism.
“You’re on this treadmill that just keeps going,” he said during an interview from his home studio in Cornwall last week. “I would go in and out of this artificial world as a sports journalist. I was given the time and the space and the travel budget to do really ambitious work.”
Wolff was filing his stories in what we now see as a hay-day for journalism. He covered “Olympics, soccer’s World Cup, the World Series, every Grand Slam tennis event, and the Tour de France,” reads his website bio. “SI story assignments took me to China, Cuba, and Iran, and dealt with such issues at the intersection of sport and society as race, ethnicity, gender, drugs, the environment, education, youth development, business, armed conflict, and ethics, as well as cultural themes like art, style, food, and the media.”
In that time, Wolff also managed to author or co-author seven books about basketball. 
By 2016, Wolff said he saw “the writing on the wall” as Sports Illustrated began shedding staff. “I decided that covering the Olympics in Rio would be my swan song.”
What was next for Wolff?
Let’s see: Establish a successful career — check. Travel the world — check. Get married and have kids — check, check. Live in a beautiful, inspiring place — check. Oh, don’t forget, co-found the Vermont Frost Heaves of the American Basketball Association — check. 
What was left for this Princeton graduate to do?
“It roughly translates to ‘working off the past’ in German,” explained Wolff, who decided to write a book on his family’s German and Jewish ancestry after his father died in 2007. “It was time for me face up to this history and wrestle with it. It’s not something we’re very good at doing here in the U.S.… I didn’t regard my family as German growing up; we’re American. Forge forward don’t look back was my dad’s attitude and was mine too for a long time.”
But now, Wolff needed to look back. 
The result: “Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home,” which was just published by Atlantic Monthly Press and Grove UK this month. 
To begin his book project, Wolff, his wife Vanessa and their two teenage kids packed up and moved to Berlin for a year so that Wolff could research the lives of his grandfather and father — both German-born men who became American citizens. 
“I knew some basics,” said Wolff, noting that his grandfather Kurt Wolff was a book publisher of Jewish descent. Kurt Wolff went into exile to escape the Nazis and eventually founded Pantheon Books in New York, which published authors like Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, Karl Kraus and many others. Alex Wolff’s father, Nikolaus Wolff, because of a divorce had to stay behind in Germany. Nikolaus Wolff was left to fight for Hitler before coming to the U.S. in 1948. “But I was not at all prepared for what I found…. like my grandfather had an illegitimate son, who I was able to meet in Denmark for a few days.”
Wolff unfolds his family’s histories through “intensely personal original source material set aside history … what emerges is that interplay of personal and world historical.”
Digging through this past wasn’t always easy.
“Historical events are a maelstrom that people can get caught up in,” he said. “Empathy is the order of the day. I think it was Susan Neiman (an American moral philosopher) who said something like: You can’t choose your parents, but you can choose your relationship to your inheritance.”
That resonated for Wolff as he explored the lives of his family members living in American and in Europe during World War II. 
“When I looked back at this material, I tried not to hold judgment and just gather,” Wolf explained. “I would peel back one more layer — what were the situations my family members were going through? Everybody was just trying to make the best of a very fractured situation.”
Wolff collected the essentials for his book during his year abroad in 2017, then took them home to his barn-converted-studio in Cornwall, where he put it all together. 
“This is a wonderful place to come back to,” said Wolff, who’s spent his fair share of writing-time in lonely, “very quiet” hotel rooms. “You have quiet of a little bit of bustle if you want it, smart people you can talk with, a great college library, and not too many distractions or at least distractions that are good for deep thoughts like the natural world. This book benefited from coming back to Vermont — it gave it the centered feel it has now.”
It took Wolff a year to get something to show a publisher, then six to eight months of revisions and the final manuscript took about a year, Wolff calculated. That’s almost four years of work for “Endpapers.”
“It’s done now,” Wolff said undeniably. “If you’re interested in history, books, literature, classical music and musicians juxtaposed with World War II, and a family story or memoir … It’s also about our present moment: our responsibility as citizens to make sure that our country isn’t hijacked by mad men and that we recognize the contributions of immigrants. If you’re looking to connect the past to the present it might be a book for you.”
For Wolff this book was a big step toward Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. The opposite of a swan song, really.
“There’s a kind of therapy in confronting this stuff and not assigning blame,” he said. “For so much of my career I haven’t gotten the ratio right between being judgmental and being curious. There’s a great profit in the movement to the curious and it feels great to be armed with a depth in the truth.”
Editor’s Note: Find copies of “Endpapers” at The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury or your local bookstore.

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