ATG Book of the Week: Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home

by | Apr 30, 2021 | 0 comments

Title: Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home
Author: Alexander Wolff
Hardcover: ISBN: 978-0-8021-5827-7, $28
Imprint: New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2021

A literary gem researched over a year the author spent living in Berlin, Endpapers excavates the extraordinary histories of the author’s grandfather and father: the renowned publisher 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.

Kurt Wolff was born in Bonn into a highly cultured German-Jewish family, whose ancestors included converts to Christianity, among them Baron Moritz von Haber, whose desire to demand satisfaction in a duel sparked off bloody antisemitic riots. Always bookish, Kurt became a publisher at twenty-three, setting up his own firm and publishing Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, Karl Kraus, and many other authors whose books would soon be burned by the Nazis. Fleeing Germany in 1933, a day after the Reichstag fire, Kurt and his second wife, Helen, sought refuge in France, Italy, and ultimately New York, where in a small Greenwich Village apartment they founded Pantheon Books. Pantheon would soon take its own place in literary history with the publication of Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, and as the conduit that brought major European works to the States. But Kurt’s taciturn son Niko, offspring of his first marriage to Elisabeth Merck, was left behind in Germany, where despite his Jewish heritage he served the Nazis on two fronts. As Alexander Wolff visits dusty archives and meets distant relatives, he discovers secrets that never made it to the land of fresh starts, including the connection between Hitler and the family pharmaceutical firm E. Merck, and the story of a half-brother Niko never knew.

With surprising revelations from never-before-published family letters, diaries, and photographs, Endpapers is a moving and intimate family story, weaving a literary tapestry of the perils, triumphs, and secrets of history and exile.


Reviews:

“An event-filled biography and, along the way, a captivating case study in the challenges faced by refugees attempting to remake a life . . . Part of Mr. Wolff’s chronicle has to do with the family lineage of which he is a part, not least the experience of his own father, Kurt’s son Niko . .  . 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, Wall Street Journal

“Wolff powerfully uses the present to lace together the biographies of his father and paternal grandfather . . . If war, exile, geographical distance, American myopia, and the comforts of upper-middle class life separated the three generations, Wolff’s book attempts to bring them together. In the spirit of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, the work of confronting the past undertaken by generations of post-war Germans, Wolff uses his skills as a reporter to sift through reams of correspondences, journals, archives, and interviews to expose the darkest parts of his family’s history . . . Ultimately the real energy of Endpapers comes not from Wolff’s impressive reconstruction of his father and grandfather’s biographies, but from the way he adds himself to the narrative, bringing us back to the present, to Merkel and Trump, to the stumbling stones in Berlin that mark a victim of the Nazis, to questions of his own privilege. Endpapers is more than a book of history; it’s a transnational, intergenerational reckoning.”—Shuchi Saraswat, Boston Globe

“Wolff explores the lives and history of his father and great-grandfather, the distinguished founder of Pantheon Books. As books were being burned and banned by the Nazis, Kurt Wolff escaped from Germany and ended up in New York, by way of France, where he began the still-flourishing publishing house. Drawing upon extensive family documents, Endpapers is as riveting as the fiction the Wolffs themselves have published, and deeply affecting.”Newsweek

“Revelatory, riveting, and deeply moving . . . The question of German guilt, both individual and collective, continues to haunt Alexander Wolff as he dives deeper into his family history . . . Wolff lands back in America in July 2018, midway through the Trump years, amid a surge of homegrown nativism and bigotry. It is a reminder of the forces that his father and grandfather confronted in much darker times, and of the fragility of even the most stable and democratic societies.”—Joshua Hammer, New York Review of Books

“Alexander Wolff is keen, after a generation of silence, to follow the untold stories wherever they might lead.”—Claire Messud, Harper’s Magazine

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