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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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’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
An Endpapers Gallery
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An Endpapers Playlist
For all his devotion to the literary life, Kurt Wolff lived a parallel one rich with music. You can listen to a soundtrack to the book, in more or less chronological order, by going to Spotify, where I’ve chosen the most appropriate recordings the platform will allow. Learn more about how each selection ties into the story.
An Endpapers Family Tree
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Illustration by Donovan Andrews
Woodcut by Frans Masereel from the graphic novel Le Soleil.
Published in Munich by Kurt Wolff Verlag as Die Sonne, 1920.
Woodcut by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner on front endpapers of Georg Heym’s Umbra Vitae (Shadow of Life).
Published in Munich by Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1924