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Walter Wolff ’42 Left a WWII Legacy That Remained Under Wraps During His Lifetime

A U.S. Army-issued green metal lock box cloistered in a closet for decades opened up a world previously unknown to Nina Wolff Feld, when her father gave it to her in the final days of his life.

Walter Wolff’s cache contained some 700 letters written in French to his family during WWII, not long after he graduated from Dwight in 1942 — and not that much longer after their 16-month escape from Hitler. 

At the age of 19, German-born Mr. Wolff was drafted by Uncle Sam and later found himself en route back to Europe as part of a special unit known as The Ritchie Boys. It was comprised of many refugees like himself whose language skills and inside knowledge of Germany and Axis countries made them ideal U.S. intelligence officers and operatives.

A Kid at Dwight
Before this fascinating chapter in Mr. Wolff’s life, explored in Ms. Felds’ 2014 book, Someday You Will Understand: My Father’s Private World War II, detailing her father’s experiences as they unfolded through his correspondence, there is one chapter in the book of special note to Dwightonians entitled “Unraveling the Chaos: A Kid at the Dwight School.” It recounts how just six months after arriving in the U.S., Mr. Wolff wrote and presented an essay, “A Survey of the Political Situation,” to fellow students and faculty in February 1942, which Ms. Feld describes as follows: 

“Having been swept into the vortex of history, he used his paper to impose order on the chaos of his past by analyzing the machinations of the enemy as the Allied Forces pushed forth to crush the Axis. What is remarkable about the paper is an eloquence that can be earned only through experience, and the depth of his knowledge of geopolitics. Worthy of a seasoned journalist, it was delivered by a boy of seventeen, whose third language was English, only five and a half months into his new American life and using as sources only the radio, American newspapers, and those around him who had survived the same circumstances he had and some perspective to offer.”

In addition to the sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the forces at play on a global scale from one so young — and so articulately for one so new to the language — Mr. Wolff’s essay is striking for its resonance in 2021. The opening paragraph written 60 years ago grips readers in today’s world rife with misinformation and fake news. Mr. Wolff begins: “It is very difficult nowadays to be accurately informed. Through a continuous barrage of false news, sent out by hundreds of radio stations, we must detect the facts. But, with a little study of propaganda methods, we are, most of the time, able to obtain a fairly accurate picture of the war.”

Mr. Wolff provided a detailed, eight-page assessment of how events and battlefronts around the world were interconnected and impacted one another, and looked at the U.S. position accordingly and that of other countries in both the European and Pacific Theaters. Drawing the complex picture and connecting the dots, this essay can be read in its entirety in Ms. Feld’s book. 

Turning the Tables
We learn through his letters that Mr. Wolff’s Army journey began with a very slow start punctuated by many moments of boredom at training camps in the U.S. before landing at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, where he became an interpreter and found his calling as an intelligence officer. He was among nearly 16,000 fellow Jewish and European refugees who were fluent in German, French, Italian, Polish, and other languages — and who could understand the culture and psyche of military enemies. They became known for their interrogation and psychological warfare efforts on the frontlines in Europe, contributing to the Allies’ victory. Many in this covert strategic unit continued to serve post-war as translators and interrogators, including Mr. Wolff. After Germany’s unconditional surrender, he served at several POW camps in Italy registering and interviewing prisoners, and ferreting out high-ranking Nazis who were sent to trial in Nuremberg. In this stunning capacity, especially for such a young man, Mr. Wolff turned the tables from persecuted German Jew to prosecutor of German war criminals. 

Earlier, Master Sergeant Wolff was also one of a few from his unit selected to classify and translate Mussolini’s documents following the dictator’s death, quickly making up for the boredom of his initial Army days stateside. The letters sent home at this time painted a picture of war-ravaged Europe through the eyes of one who was spared. Mr. Wolff, then age 15, fled Brussels with his family and an American friend just a few days before it was bombed and occupied by the Germans. They escaped by way of the coastal roads, arriving at Dunkirk as the first bombs fell, and then through occupied France to Spain until they were able to board one of the last ships out, arriving in New York just a few months before Pearl Harbor. 

The letters constitute both a war journal and a means by which Ms. Feld gained great insights into her father, which had eluded her during his lifetime. She explains, “I knew that I had grown up as the daughter of a famous furniture designer who founded the Bon Marché home furnishing stores in New York City, but I had not gotten the memo that I was the daughter of a refugee. Although we spent several months a year in Europe, I was not aware of my father’s traumatic past. He never spoke about it I presume because all he wanted was for his children to have a ‘normal’ life. And I suppose that he just wanted to get on with life as well.”
 
The awakening to her father’s history was quite dramatic and most definitely life-changing. Ms. Feld, an artist, ended up devoting several years to archiving and translating his letters and to writing her book. The contents of her personal archive were recently donated to the Leo Baeck Institute, an archive and research library in New York City dedicated to the history and culture of German-speaking Jews. 

Today, Ms. Feld continues to keep her father’s story alive, along with the larger lessons of the Holocaust. That green metal box became her legacy. She is currently working on a socio-political history of The Europa Building in Brussels, tracing how an Art Deco apartment building was transformed into a symbol of the power and terror of the Third Reich, and transformed yet again during post-war reconstruction. It’s now a symbol for the promotion of humanitarian and progressive values to citizens worldwide as the seat of the European Council and Council of the European Union. It is also — quite strikingly — where the Wolff family lived for several years before their escape to New York.