A grandson of the influential German-American book publisher Kurt Wolff—who founded Pantheon Books—Sports Illustrated journalist Alexander Wolff investigates his fraught family history, offering a sweeping portrait of the turmoil of the 20th century and the legacy of immigration from Nazi Germany.
... [a] revelatory, riveting, and deeply moving account of his family’s involvement in Germany’s recent history ... The Merck story, however, is only a sideshow to Wolff’s central narrative in Endpapers , which focuses on the dramatically divergent paths taken by his paternal grandfather and father during the Nazi years. Elisabeth Merck’s first husband, the author’s grandfather Kurt Wolff, became the country’s most illustrious publisher during the Weimar era ... Wolff cast his eye on both contemporary Germany and his family’s turbulent road through the twentieth century, from the vantage point of a city that stands on the fault lines of Germany’s recent past ... For six years Kurt and Helen lived in a comfortable limbo in France (where their son, Christian, was born) and Italy. All that changed suddenly, however, when the Nazis invaded Poland. Declared enemy aliens, the couple was interned in a camp in southern France, and when the Nazis broke through the Maginot Line in June 1940, they became fugitives under the Vichy puppet regime. Wolff has pieced together this period in remarkable detail, capturing the fear, desperation, and helplessness of a literary titan who found himself reduced to a victim, dependent on the goodwill of a few heroic people ... The question of German guilt, both individual and collective, continues to haunt Alexander Wolff as he dives deeper into his family history. Some of the strongest passages of Endpapers capture the emotional arguments between Kurt and his daughter Maria, Niko’s sister.
Now, having looked more deeply into that Germanness, the author is left with layers of ambiguities—“Kurt and Helen’s flight and exile, Maria and Elisabeth’s fate to be ‘rats in a trap,’ Niko’s service on two fronts.” In contemporary Berlin, where the Nazis’ victims are memorialized in the very pavement, 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.
... an event-filled biography and, along the way, a captivating case study in the challenges faced by refugees attempting to remake a life ... [the elder] 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.