Review of Manfred Wolf’s Memoir, Survival in Paradise

Survival in ParadiseSurvival in Paradise: Sketches from a Refugee Life in Curaçao by Manfred Wolf. iUniverse, 2014. 286 pages. $17.00 ISBN: 9781491722640

Review by Vernon Miles Kerr

Part of the magic in a literary work can sometimes be infused from what is between the lines. Infusions, such as lemon or oranges in ice water are nice: the water picks up the subtle flavor of the fruit—the reader picks up the subtlety between the lines. This is true of the autobiographical book, Survival in Paradise, subtitled Sketches from a Refugee Life in Curaçao, by Manfred Wolf. The author, who in the beginning of the narrative is seven years old, sees his happy life in an affluent warm family in Germany turn into a horrific flight from internment and possible death.

Along the circuitous escape route from Germany to Holland to Southern France, Monte Carlo, Spain, Portugal and eventually South America, there are many close calls and experiences, even to the extent of watching fellow travelers caught and shipped out for Auschwitz—and desperate refugees reaching the end of their money or planned escape routes and doing away with themselves. The family finally makes it to a tropical place of safety in Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela, where the author manages to focus on the colorful, carnival-like, engagingly chaotic cultural environment, putting the darkness behind him.

Later, as a seventeen year-old, thinking that he has surgically excised the mass of dark memories, the author goes on to Brandeis University in New England.

At Brandeis he is immersed into an environment of fellow-students and faculty who are mostly Jewish—but something is bottled up inside him. Compared with the easy-going, wisecracking American students, the author, although trying to put on a casual, happy face, remains a brooding, enigmatic presence. What has been walled off in a dark corner of his mind threatens to be released in a torrent of argument with a middle-aged Jewish woman at the author’s first Thanksgiving Dinner in America. This passage from the memoir expresses the author’s puzzlement, over America’s ignorance when it came to those relatively recent events in Europe.

After dessert, another guest, Libby, a blonde woman of about fifty who worked for Hadassah, asked about my war experiences. She posed questions intently, but did not always seem to hear the answer. Lighting a cigarette in a long green holder, she said expansively, “You know, I have friends who escaped Europe. I forget now if they left before or after the war.”
“That makes rather a lot of difference,” I answered laconically.
“Oh, really?” she sighed. “These friends lost everything. They owned gorgeous furniture, clothes, jewelry, everything; they lost everything.”
“But they got out; they survived,” I said.
“Well, yes.” She looked at me quizzically. I fought a surging tide of discontent. I wished this subject had not come up, but since it had, I wanted to make myself understood.
Frederic tried to speak, but he could only get a few words out. He was obviously embarrassed and smiled at me conspiratorially.
Clattering sounded in the kitchen. Ceil shouted, “Gentlemen, let’s not talk about the past. Let’s talk about your future, Manny. What are you going to study?”
“Psychology,” I half-shouted back.
“Psychology? How nice. I wish Stanley had studied psychology. Stanley I wish you had studied psychology.”
“No Ceil, psychology isn’t for me. I like something a little more exact.”
“Oh, Stanley. Exactness, always exactness. That’s not how the world turns.”
Libby returned to the subject of the war, though now wearing a reflective face. She stuck another cigarette in her holder. “World War Two was no picnic here either. We had shortages. Sometimes we couldn’t get soap or sugar or butter or even underwear, at least with elastic. For some reason we couldn’t get elastic. You know, a lot of material was put in parachutes. Silk or nylon.”
“I think nylon was invented right after the war, Libby,” said Stanley suavely.
“No, you’re wrong there, Stanley. Nylon was invented during the war or before…Ceil, Ceil – did we have nylon stockings during the war?” shrieked Libby.
I never heard the answer because I was enveloped in a thickening mist, conscious of a leaden feeling, which lessened my gladness about attending an American university, studying important ideas, and meeting friendly, book-loving girls. I thought of Carol and Jenny, with whom I had recently walked to the library. The room with all those smiling strangers felt stiflingly hot. I half rose from my chair, swallowing painfully, almost choking, but no one noticed, and I sat down again, my forehead sweaty and cold. I feared that if I spoke I might sob.”

Although the ostensible purpose of the author is to describe his own coming to terms with his family’s horrific near-unsuccessful escape from a hellish end, he seems to, almost inadvertently, chronicle a history of the entire range of varied reactions by many of the cohort of fleeing Jews to the danger and impending demise. As Wolf tells it, many of them apparently well knew the fate that awaited them if caught. One can imagine an effective European Jewish grapevine transmitting data back and forth across the continent.

And down below that adult data stream, is the author, looking up and being exposed to adult conversations, which were, due to their dire subject matter, sadly unfit for tender ears—but which his precocious mind was storing, and partially repressing.

Among the people in this odyssey is Max, Wolf’s father, formerly an affluent, dynamic factory owner, who is often seen during the family’s flight as, distracted, almost unbelieving of where he is finding himself, though—as the story relates—resourceful when it counted. There is Bertha, the mother, gregarious, assertive using her personality to directly engage the officials who hold the key to their ability to escape from Europe. There is the couple who, after failing several times to run the border between France and Spain, in their desperate reaction to the terror of impending arrest and imprisonment, throw themselves under a train. And there is the man who, losing his hope for escape at the gaming tables in Monte Carlo, hangs himself.

The author’s turning point, a kind of epiphany, comes at Brandeis when one cold, New England night an unstable fellow-student dons a Nazi Army uniform, and stands at attention on a precipice, outside a dorm window, several stories above the campus, possibly poised to do away with his own life and perhaps the whole repository of dark memories along with it. The student eventually returns to his room and, in a beautifully rendered scene, the author shows how this affects his own thinking and feeling. The final sentence of this passage is the crux of that epiphany:

The crowd grew by the moment. It was so cold that we huddled together. I felt the ice seeping into my shoes. At a second-floor window stood a tall, pale young man in the grayish green uniform of a Nazi officer, his curls distinctly visible under his military cap. He stood stiffly, distantly as if not present in his body, and he did not gesture or speak. We watched for some time, none of us speaking, until he disappeared behind the curtains. The next day he was driven to New York, to recover from his “nervous breakdown.”
As if we had taken a vow of silence, my classmates and I never mentioned this scene to each other, and, incredibly neither did Carol and I at dinner that evening.
This ghostlike apparition haunted me. It spoke of pain not confronted and history not faced.

Wolf then commits himself to his own future, irrespective of the awful facts of his—and the world’s—undeniable history.

This book is recommended reading for several audiences. For youth, because it is a classic coming-of-age story, for adults because it provides understanding of the ripples of evil that can emanate from dark places in the human soul and spread throughout the world, and that should never be forgotten but acknowledged and used as a catalyst to somehow yield some improvement to all of our collective souls.

A WordPress installation by Robert Hallsey