Endpapers

Endpapers

A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home

A sweeping portrait of the turmoil of the twentieth century and the legacy of immigration, as seen through the German-American family of the celebrated book publisher Kurt Wolff

I spent a year in Berlin exploring the lives of my grandfather and father—Kurt Wolff, dubbed “perhaps the twentieth century’s most discriminating publisher” by the New York Times Book Review, and his son Niko, who fought in the Wehrmacht during World War II before coming to America. Endpapers tells of the journeys of these two German-born men turned American citizens, and my own quest to make sense of their stories amidst rising rightist populism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Kurt Wolff was born in Bonn into a highly cultured German-Jewish family with ancestors who included converts to Christianity, including Baron Moritz von Haber, a duelist who became famous for his role in touching off bloody antisemitic riots. Drawn to books as a boy, Kurt became a publisher at twenty-three, setting up his own firm and publishing Franz Kafka, Heinrich Mann, Joseph Roth, Karl Kraus, and many other authors whose works would soon be burned by the Nazis. Fleeing Germany in 1933, a day after the Reichstag fire, my grandfather and his second wife, Helen, sought refuge in France, Italy, and ultimately New York, where they founded Pantheon Books in a small Greenwich Village apartment in 1942. The firm would soon take its place in literary history with the publication of Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, and as the conduit that brought other major European works to the States.

But my taciturn father, offspring of Kurt’s first marriage, to Elisabeth Merck, was left behind in Germany, where despite his Jewish heritage he served the Nazis on two fronts. Visiting dusty archives and meeting distant relatives, I learn secrets that never made it to the land of fresh starts, including the connection between Hitler and my grandmother’s family’s pharmaceutical firm E. Merck, as well as the story of a half-brother my father never knew.

Drawing on never-before-published family letters, diaries, and photographs, Endpapers is my chance to tell an intimate family story, a tapestry of the perils, triumphs, and secrets of history and exile, with resonances for today.

Reviews

“A powerfully told story of family, honor, love, and truth, by a masterful writer who sees across the oceans and through the generations. In Endpapers we see the Wolff family through war and love, detention camps and immigration hearings, kindness and betrayal, occupying a world equal parts Casablanca and Kafka. It is engrossing and entertaining, a book of conscience and remembrance that tells the beautiful truth that so often those who contribute most to the culture and civic life of a place are the outcast and the refugee.”

—Beto O’Rourke

“A poignant portrait . . . Wolff skillfully contextualizes his father’s and grandfather’s tales with military and political history . . . History buffs and literary enthusiasts will be rewarded.”

Publishers Weekly, Top 10 for History, Spring 2021

“Alexander Wolff is keen, after a generation of silence, to follow the untold stories wherever they might lead. . . . In the end, Wolff offers the words of Umberto Eco: ‘Those things about which we cannot theorize . . . we must narrate.’ To bring stories into the light, to render their humanity, is our best hope.”

—Claire Messud, Harpers

“Revelatory, riveting, and deeply moving . . . Endpapers is a kind of reckoning: an exploration of the author’s family’s bargains with the Nazis, a reflection on inherited guilt and its imperatives, and a contemplation of the ways that postwar Germans have attempted to expiate the horrific deeds and moral blindness of their elders.”

—Joshua Hammer, New York Review of Books

“Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Endpapers, at its heart, is an absorbing family history. But it is so much more than that, it is a haunting exploration of guilt and responsibility, of roots and new beginnings. Filled with stunning literary details that any bibliophile will cherish, this is an intimate and complex portrait of a remarkable family that also tells a wider story of Europe and America in the twentieth century. Endpapers is a treasure—a brave and moving book.”

—Ariana Neumann, author of When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains

“Alexander Wolff—a writer of superb grace—traces a complex and compelling family history in this deeply absorbing narrative of high culture under threat, of political and moral violence, and the deep wish for what Wolff refers to as Heimkehr or ‘homecoming.’ Endpapers held me in its spell for days.”

—Jay Parini, author of Borges and Me: An Encounter

“Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, the two greatest émigré writers, both fled America. So did the greatest of émigré publishers, Kurt Wolff, universally regarded as the class act of his industry. In a compelling, frequently thrilling, and—if you have an ear for the biting tone of Hitler’s exiles—often hilarious book, Alexander Wolff combines biography, memoir, and cultural history, rendering them indivisible, and making clear the uncanny and terrifying parallels between Kurt Wolff’s day and ours.”

—Anthony Heilbut, author of Exiled in Paradise and Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature

“A stunning and brave book, deep and absorbing. I was enraptured by the story of Kurt, Niko, and Alex as they moved through the crosswinds of the twentieth century, from Munich to Princeton, and into the modern world.”

—David Maraniss, author of A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father

“Remarkable lives in extraordinary times—a gripping and exceptional literary journey.”

—Philippe Sands, author of East West Street and The Ratline

“An astonishing, compelling, confronting story of a divided family, reaching sharply into the present.”

—Tim Bonyhady, author of Good Living Street: Portrait of a Patron Family, Vienna 1900

“Alexander Wolff turns inward with this deeply personal story about family and book publishing. . . . An affecting, emotional, and sometimes harrowing saga.”

Kirkus Reviews

“A tapestry of exile and complicity . . . Wolff’s inquiry focuses upon gregarious and cultured Kurt, who left many letters but also some secrets; and complex, taciturn Niko, whose inner life was a mystery. In doing so, Wolff reveals a broader fascination with the relationship between historical events and personal trajectories.”

Booklist

“Engrossing . . . fascinating . . . The author delves deeply into his ancestry to unravel the complex stories of his multigenerational family, and to show how his father’s and grandfather’s traumatic lives affected him.”

Library Journal

“No serious reader will be less than wowed by Alexander Wolff’s Endpapers. The author, constructing a fascinating story of family, comes to grips with three different lives: that of his grandfather, publisher Kurt Wolff; his father, Niko, a reluctant soldier in World War II; and himself, interwoven with the others. Endpapers is personal history that serves the public well.”

—Laura Claridge, author of The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire

“An event-filled biography and, along the way, a captivating case study in the challenges faced by refugees attempting to remake a life. . . . Not content with registering the tectonic shifts of the times, Kurt Wolff brought about convulsions of his own, shaking up the American postwar literary scene. His grandson’s book, as enlightening as it is engaging, measures the effects.”

—Benjamin Balint, The Wall Street Journal

“Wolff’s year of research is chronicled beautifully in Endpapers . . . he powerfully uses the present to lace together the biographies of his father and paternal grandfather. . . . Endpapers is more than a book of history; it’s a transnational, intergenerational reckoning.”

—Shuchi Saraswat, The Boston Globe

“As riveting as the fiction the Wolffs themselves have published, and deeply affecting.”

—Juliana Rose Pignataro, Newsweek, Spring 2021, 21 Best Books to Read

“A thoroughly captivating book . . . an extraordinary look at the intellectual milieu of 20th century German literary culture and its collision with the historical upheavals of the first half of the century. Wolff continues the story postwar, delving into the complexities of how those upheavals play out in the dynamics of his own family.”

—Dale Szczeblowski, Porter Square Books (Cambridge, Mass.), Staff Pick for March 2021

“To read the story of the Wolff family is to wake to the need for a fuller understanding of the human condition. Everyone has a story. . . . Not everyone’s story is as replete with famous names as the Wolffs’ story is, but each is a human story worthy of the respect that is trammeled by movements that elevate one race or nationality over another.”

—David Moats, VTDigger.org

“Compelling . . . unflinching . . . Alexander Wolff exposes in his ancestors’ experiences the common thread. It is the barest, most basic definition of purpose in life, neither noble nor subhuman: survival.”

—Robert Siegel, Moment

“A fascinating mixture of memoir, journalism, history and an up-close look at one family’s complicated relationship with Nazi Germany. . . . Endpapers is not only the gripping story of one family’s history, but an important exploration of responsibility.”

—Pamela Toler, Shelf Awareness

“[Wolff] knows how to crisply punch out ideas and tell engrossing stories. . . . This is a finely blended package of knowledge gleaned from family history, interviews with near and distant relatives, and government records and archival sources. . . . [Wolff has] done his family justice. Maybe rough justice, but still, justice.”

—Douglas Johnston, Winnipeg Free Press

“Wolff’s journalistic skills and meticulous, stubborn research have opened up fascinating historical veins surrounding and preceding his progenitors. . . . Endpapers is an invaluable gift to literature, mainly but not only for the quotations, details, and beguilingly written scenes of publisher Kurt Wolff’s life scattered throughout.”

—Kai Maristed, The Arts Fuse

“An amazing family saga.”

—Jeff Jarvis, Buzz Machine and founding editor, Entertainment Weekly

“Does brilliant justice not only to [the] story [of Kurt and Helen Wolff] but to the tale of his own father, who had stayed behind in Germany and served in its army. Beautifully written and empathetic to its core, Endpapers deserves the highest compliment possible: it might as well have been published under the imprint of a Kurt and Helen Wolff book.”

Air Mail, Book Report

“Alexander Wolff does more than chronicle his father and grandfather’s lives; he explores the immigrant experience, grapples with issues that include German guilt and responsibility, assesses Germany today, and discerns what his American and German roots mean to him. . . . He searches for his own version of historical reckoning in a most readable and engaging style.”

—Gila Wertheimer, JewishBookCouncil.org

“A panorama of the modern history which connects America and Germany from two wars to the present day. . . . [The author has] a gift for giving familiar historical facts a fresh approach.”

—J. Kemper Campbell, Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star

“A book . . . about emigrants, and those left behind, and the war that divided them. A family story as captivating and moving as a novel.”

—Wiebke Hollersen, Berliner Zeitung

“Alexander Wolff traces the lives of his grandfather and father in a relaxed narrative voice and describes in parallel broad sweeping arcs of history. . . . Purists may hold against Wolff his great asset as a writer, which could inspire younger readers in particular: He has mastered the art of storytelling in a brisk, colloquial style. . . . Such is how biographical stories can become meaningful testimonies of contemporary history–in an understandable, completely non-academic way.”

—Peter Claus, Die Rheinpfalz (Leverkusen)

“Lives are rendered sensitively and personally, which makes for a very accessible and easy-to-read book. . . . Wolff tells everything: how his view of Germany changed in the course of writing, and how he finally reconciled in a way with the country of his fathers, a place he previously had only a vague sense of. His grandfather Kurt Wolff had to leave Germany. His father Niko wanted to leave Germany. And Alexander closes the circle with this book. It’s very touching, and builds a beautiful bridge over the Atlantic.”

—Bettina Baltschev, Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk

“Alexander Wolff spent a year in Germany researching this unbelievable, sometimes very harrowing and thrilling family history, to write it up with a personal touch–yet at the same time to set it in its proper historical context.”

Neue Presse (Hannover)

“[Alexander Wolff] wanted to know more. So he did something crazy: he took a buyout from his magazine job—he was a full-time reporter at Sports Illustrated—and moved with his wife and two children from Vermont to Berlin-Kreuzberg. There he hit the archives, found relatives, scaled the remotest branches of his family tree. His Cicerone: the historian Timothy Snyder, whose book Bloodlands served as a kind of compass. During his research he discovered all kinds of things—for example, a noble ancestor and convert to Christianity who defended his Jewish honor in a duel (victoriously!). But also a great aunt who palled around with the Himmlers. . . . Upon returning home, Alexander sat down and wrote a book: a family saga framed by autobiographical reportage.”

—Hannes Stein, Die Welt

“Nothing less than a European-American cultural, exile, and Jewish family history. . .. What’s impressive about Endpapers is how it ranges widely across the historical and cultural horizon. It never strays from succinctly describing the character of various [members of Wolff’s family] and relating their fate, and subtly intersperses reflections on the present day. Amidst all this, the book offers a sensitive look at the ambivalences and contradictions that those characters had to confront as a result of the circumstances of their times, yet also renders judgments on events and family members’ conduct.”

—Erhard Schütz, Der Freitag (Berlin), “Factually Accurate: On nonfiction you should absolutely read”

“Fascinating . . . [The author] sees himself bound by fate to both those who were murdered or expelled from their homeland, and to perpetrators who, as part of the German army, facilitated murders all over Europe, or—like an aunt from the Merck family—befriended Himmler . . ..”

—Holger Böning, Jüdische Allgemeine (Berlin)

“In Robert Fass’s skillful narration, this combination of family memoir and investigative journalism fascinates on many levels. . . . Fass’s accurate, sensitive, and well-paced performance makes this tale penetrating and memorable.”

AudioFile (on the Tantor audiobook)

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