By MARILYN SHAPIRO
I recently listened to Trudi Wolfe-Larkin and Marilyn Wolfe tell the incredible story of their parents’ Holocaust survival. Then through the sister’s efforts, I watched over six hours of an interview that Yolie and Irving Wolfe, their parents, had recorded for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.
I knew that their story must be written and preserved for the Wolfe family and for posterity.
Trudi Wolfe-Larkin and Marilyn Wolfe learned at an early age that their parents were Holocaust survivors. No, Irving and Yolie Wolfe did not have a number carved into their arms, but they had emotional and their father also had physical scars of their lives in Nazi Germany.
Through their childhood, the two siblings overheard conversations that Yolie had with other survivors who were their parents’ close friends. As Trudi and Marilyn learned more about the Holocaust, they would ask questions.
Although Irving brushed off any inquiries with “I don’t want to talk about it,”
Yolie was more forthcoming and shared more details with her children when she felt they were old enough to absorb the horrors. In 1995, when they were in their 60s, Yolie and Irving shared their experiences in 10 hours of combined interviews that are part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Irving Wolfe was born in Czestohowa, Poland, in 1926, the third of the four children of David and Gittel Wolfowicz. Although they celebrated the major Jewish holidays, they were not a religious family. David provided a comfortable life as the owner of successful women’s coat manufacturing company. When the family located to Sosnowiec, their large apartment also housed their father’s business.
All of this changed in Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Sosnowiec was one of the first towns to fall, and persecution of its 30,000 Jews was swift and brutal. The synagogue was burned, and beatings and arrests began immediately. Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and faced restrictions. Nazi round-ups ranging from small groups to thousands of Jews crammed into a local soccer stadium resulted in deportations to concentration camps.
Thirteen-year-old Irving, who many thought had Aryan features, was drafted into delivering papers and messages for the Jewish underground. As the noose tightened, Jews were forced to move into smaller Jewish areas. By June 1942, the Wolfowicz family, with the remaining population of Sosnowiec and Jews from surrounding communities, were herded into the Środula district. Soon after, Irving was caught in a roundup. As he had no identification papers, he was arrested and sent to a forced labor camp.
Over the next three years, he and fellow prisoners dug ditches, cleaned cesspools and latrines, and built more barracks to house more Jews who would either be used for forced labor, or who would be sent to the gas chambers.
In his time in a variety of forced labor camps, Irving remembered no acts of kindness from his captors. Each day was a series of kicks, slaps, and beatings. He and fellow prisoners subsisted daily on an eighth of a loaf of bread and watery soup. Prisoners were awakened in the middle of the night and forced to run around the compounds in the bitter cold. And they were forced to watch fellow prisoners who committed even the smallest infraction executed by the Germans.
The lowest point in what were horrible circumstances came in the fall 1943. One night, an SS guard charged into the area, demanding to know who had stolen a potato. When Irving refused to name the guilty party, he was severely beaten in front of his fellow prisoners. The man that he saved never forgot Irving’s kindness, and they remained friends throughout their lives.
The remaining years passed in his memories as a blur of pain and hunger and disease, which included a bout with typhus that nearly killed him. His final stop was the Reichenbach, which he had “helped” build. On May 9, 1945, Irving and other survivors woke up to silence. All the Germans had left the camp, but those survivors that were left behind were afraid to leave, as they didn’t know if the electric barbed wire fences were still operational. The next day, Russian soldiers, led by a Jewish captain, liberated the camps.
Irving returned to Sustevich, his former home, where he learned that the ghetto had been liquidated in 1944, and that his parents and sisters had been killed in Auschwitz. His older brother, who had been arrested earlier in the war, was never heard from again.
The war had done little to curb the virulent anti-Semitism that had always existed in Sustevich, Irving reported, and Irving was greeted with taunts of “They should have killed you too.” He relocated to Krakow for job training, only to be witness to the first pogrom in post WWII. On Aug. 9, 1945, false accusations of “blood libel” —Jews murdering Christian children for their religious rituals—resulted in attacks and beatings of Jews; the robbing and vandalism of their homes; the destruction of a synagogue, and the murder of a 56-year-old woman who was also a Holocaust survivor.
Irving decided to find safety in the Wetzlar displacement camp in the Frankfort district of the American-occupied zone, After hospitalizations due to tuberculosis and skin infections at the site of his 1943 beating, Irving enrolled in a precision mechanics program at the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training (ORT), which provided rehabilitation for many Holocaust survivors. While there, he filed the paperwork needed for his planned emigration to Israel. His plans changed, however, when he met another Holocaust survivor.
Yolie Goldstein was born in Sarospattak, Hungary, in 1927, the youngest of five children. Her father, a tailor, headed an observant family. He attended a minyan each morning, and the family kept kosher.
The Nazi’s “Final Solution” came to Hungry later than it had to Poland as Hungary had originally aligned with the Axis Powers. Hungary, which had not followed the draconian measures against its Jewish population, attempted to establish an armistice with the Allies, but in March 1944, German forces occupied Hungary and began rounding up 800,00 Jews who had been protected by the previous government’s policies. In June 1944, the Goldstein family, including Yolie’s parents, her brother Jack, and her sisters Dawn and Rosalie, were packed with fellow Jews into train cars for the three day trip to Auschwitz.
Yolie’s mother was determined to keep Yolie, her youngest, close. But during the selection process a German guard quietly told Yolie’s mother to let her join her sisters. The three sisters were processed, shaved, showered in ice-cold water with lye soap, and given raggedy dresses. Hope of seeing their mother again disappeared like the smoke from the nearby chimney that towered over the camp. “Those first weeks were the worst,” Yolie said in her Shoah Foundation interview. “We were sitting around doing nothing and waiting to die.” Yolie clearly remembers seeing the ‘angel of death,’ Dr. Josef Mengele, several times during those first months in the concentration camp.
In September 1944, the three sisters were among the 300 women selected by the Nazis to work in a munitions factory, where they built airplane parts. The living situation was similar to what Irving had experienced: sleeping conditions in barracks overseen by the SS; a near-starvation level diet and fears of beatings and execution. The only hope for the sisters were the rumors of Germany’s pending defeat.
In late winter, the surviving factory workers were forced to march to another munitions factory, only to find it had already been shuttered. They were then sent to Bergen-Belsen, where Yolie and others faced a nightmare that many considered greater than Auschwitz.
Yolie and her sisters joined the 60,000 starving and mortally ill people who were packed together without food, water or basic sanitation. They saw with horror thousands of unburied bodies lying in the open. The long-awaited end to their captivity came when British forces liberated the camp on April 15, 1945, only a few days after their arrival.
While Yolie’s re-entry to post-imprisonment life was supported by the Red Cross, Dawn and Rosalie had contracted tuberculosis. When she visited her two hospitalized sisters a few weeks later, Yolie could barely recognize the pale skeletons under the white sheets any better than Dawn and Rosalie could recognize the young woman with the new clothes and the styled hair.
The three siblings returned to Sarospattak, Hungary, where they were reunited with their brother Jack, who had survived the Javesno concentration camp. By 1946, Abraham, the oldest, had returned from his imprisonment in Russia. It was then confirmed that both parents had been murdered in concentration camps. Miraculously, however, all five siblings had survived.
Soon learning that such papers were difficult if not impossible to obtain in Hungary, the three refugees relocated to the Wetzlar DP camp in Frankfort, Germany. While the DP camp provided food, Yolie cooked their meals in “pots” that were re-purposed cans. Yolie enrolled in sewing classes at the nearby ORT.
Yolie and Irving met and soon “became an item.” Despite their language differences—she spoke Hungarian; he spoke German—they communicated through “the language of love.” Irving originally planned to go to Israel. As their relationship blossomed, however, Yolie persuaded him to come with her to United States. They were married in 1949.
Through her aunt’s sponsorship, Yolie, who was three months pregnant, arrived in New York City at the end of December, in time to see the ball drop on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Six months later, and shortly before the birth of their daughter Trudi, Irving joined his wife. After a brief time in an apartment in Asbury Park, N.J., they bought a house in nearby Bradley Beach, N.J. Their second daughter, Marilyn, was born in 1954. After initial employment as a salesman in an Army-Navy store Irving opened up WOLCO Uniforms, which specialized in school jackets and embroidery. While Abraham remained in Israel and raised a large family, Jack, Dawn, and Rosalie came to the United States through the same aunt’s sponsorship. The siblings remained close throughout their lives.
Trudi and Marilyn speak lovingly of their parents and the life they made for themselves and for their daughters. They are proud that they not only survived but were also provided a “normal” life free of the anger and guilt that they feel has been experienced by many other Holocaust survivor families.
During the Shoah interview, Yolie was asked if she had ever given up and stopped believing in a future. “It was all we had,” said Yolie. “There has to be something at the other side.”
Why, after over 50 years, are the daughters willing to share their story for posterity? “It has to be told,” said Trudi, who joined her parents at the very end of the Shoah interview. “By having your histories done, perhaps that will bring it into the future where the children—tomorrow’s future—can learn about it and realize that it did it exist.”
Taped testimonials for Yolie and Irving Wolfe, 1995
Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla. A second compilation of her articles printed in The Jewish World has been published. Tikkun Olam now joins There Goes My Heart. She recently published Fradel’s Story, a compilation of stories by her mother that she edited. Shapiro’s blog is theregoesmyheart.me.