A dying father’s wartime army box yields a wealth of lively detail about American intelligence work in POW and displaced persons camps within the ruins of Europe.
Walter Wolff, who went on to found the furnishings maker Bon Marché, was a Jewish immigrant whose family made it to New York City in 1941, just in advance of the Nazi invasion of their country, Belgium. After attending the Dwight School in New York and becoming fluent in several European languages, Wolff was drafted into the U.S. Army in May 1943; he was not yet a citizen. The author, Wolff’s artist daughter, knew little about her father’s wartime exploits until he gave her the letters he kept in a metal box shortly before he died and she was able to read the prodigious correspondence (often written in French or German) he kept with his mother and others while serving in the military. The author’s translations are mostly verbatim and full of energy and punctuation. Starting at Camp Ritchie, in Maryland, Wolff and other “refugee soldiers” with useful language skills entered the short-lived Army Specialized Training Program located at several colleges—e.g., Virginia Tech, Yale—and at Camp Grant, in Rockford, Illinois, where Wolff was successively posted. There, he learned interrogation techniques and other types of psychological warfare. Yet the war was winding down, and time to get back to Europe and witness Germany’s debacle was growing short. So Wolff finagled a job through the Pentagon, first translating documents belonging to Mussolini, then moving into various displaced persons camps in Germany and Austria and vetting German war criminals—the latter proved to be a deeply satisfying task for Wolff. Along with Wolff’s intimately chronicled accounts of the devastation from bombings and the homelessness of Jews and others, the accompanying photographs he took himself reveal stirring remnants of an apocalypse.
One man’s valiant story unearths valuable wartime details.