At 5 a.m. on Nov. 9, 1938, Manfred (Fred) Wolf was awakened by loud banging on the front door of their home in Merl an der Mosel, Germany. He looked out his upstairs window to see two Brownshirts, members of a Nazi militia, standing below with bayoneted guns. “Ed Wolf, you have to come out,” they shouted to Fred’s father. Fred, then 14, watched as his father exited the house and was led away. Fred asked his stepmother what she wanted him to do. “Manfred, there’s nothing you can do. Go to school,” she answered.
Fred was born on July 15, 1924, in Merl an der Mosel to Ed and Rika Frankel Wolf. Fred’s family lived in a three-story house with his paternal grandmother; the family business, a men’s clothing store where Ed was a salesman, occupied the first floor.
One of only two Jewish families in Merl, the Wolfs were observant, though only Fred’s grandmother was strictly Orthodox.
The family interacted mostly amicably with the 1,500 residents of their town until 1933, when Hitler came to power. Fred remembers Nazis marching through the streets singing anti-Semitic songs, always stopping in front of their house.
One day in 1935, Fred’s mother was reading the newspaper next to an open stove when her skirt caught fire. She was hospitalized with burns covering more than 85 percent of her body. Several weeks later, on a Shabbat morning, Fred woke up to screaming and crying. His father told him that his mother had died. Fred hugged his father and said, “I still have you.” He was 11 years old.
After a year, Ed remarried, to a woman named Johanna Levy. “I liked her very much,” Fred recalled.
Bicycling home from school in Zell, the next town over, on Nov. 9, 1938, Fred was stopped by some school chums. “Manfred, don’t go home. Something terrible will happen to you,” they warned. Fred returned to Zell; he waited until dark and walked home.
The house was pitch-black and in shambles. “Every step I walked was full of glass,” Fred remembered. His stepmother came downstairs and hugged him. That night became known as the notorious Kristallnacht.
Fred and his stepmother later learned that Ed had been taken to Dachau, but he was released after five weeks. At his father’s urging, Fred traveled to Cologne, where he joined a kibbutz, or camp, that was part of the Zionist youth movement’s Hakhshara (preparation) program to give young people the agricultural and technical skills necessary for immigration to Palestine. There, Fred learned to be a machinist.
When the kibbutz closed several months later, Fred left for another kibbutz in Schniebinchen, where he cut down trees. The Schniebinchen group then moved to a farm, where they harvested potatoes and sugar beets.
In the summer of 1939, the entire group was sent to a labor camp in Paderborn, where they worked for the city — cleaning streets, shoveling dirt from the sewers and even making marmalade. “We were treated well,” Fred said.
Fred was still in Paderborn in 1942, when he received a telephone call from his father, who was living in Cologne. “We will be evacuated within the next four or five days. Do you want to come with us?” Ed asked. Fred knew what this meant. “Papa, I think I can help you from here wherever you go,” he said, wanting to be kind. That was the last time he spoke to his parents. He was 18.
In March 1943, Fred’s group was evacuated to Bielefeld, then sent in open boxcars to
Auschwitz, arriving at night.
“Raus, raus,” the guards shouted. “Out, out.” Fred came face to face with a German officer wearing polished blacks boots and carrying a horsewhip. “How old are you?” the officer asked. “Eighteen,” Fred answered, clicking his heels. The officer, who Fred later learned was Dr. Josef Mengele, ascertained he could work and permitted him to stay.
Loaded onto a military truck with other young men, Fred gazed at the stars. “God, what did I do?” he asked himself. “I’m a Jew. That’s all.”
The prisoners were brought to Buna or Auschwitz III, a subcamp of Auschwitz, which, in November 1943, became a full-fledged concentration camp. As they were being processed, the SS ordered them to hand over any jewelry. Fred took the watch his grandmother had given him for his bar mitzvah and smashed it against a washbasin.
One day soon after arriving, Fred was ordered to stay behind when others went off to work, to clean the barracks. Two prisoners with black triangles on their uniforms suddenly approached him. “Put your pants down. Bend over,” one said. He held Fred’s head while the other prisoner raped him.
Fred worked as an electrician in the IG Farben factory, working among non-Jewish Poles who hated him.
In his next kommando (detail) assignment, he had to run up a plank to a train car, bend over for kapos to place a 50-kilo (110 pounds) sack of cement on his back and run down the plank. At the end of the first 12-hour day, completely dispirited, he purposefully injured his eye by looking into a welder’s flame and went to the infirmary. But he left when a friend warned that the SS would take him.
Outside, standing alone, he began to cry. A Polish-Jewish kapo, Harry Naftaniel, befriended him.
Harry suggested Fred volunteer for a roofing kommando. He, Harry and others were taken to Sosnowitz, a subcamp of Auschwitz, where they repaired the roofs of three barracks. Fred then worked in a factory assembling anti-aircraft guns.
In January 1945, as Soviet troops approached, they were forced to join a death march, sleeping at night in the snow. Near the Czechoslovakian border, the Nazis loaded them into cattle cars and took them to Mauthausen.
When they arrived, Fred was given a pair of shoes. When he put them on, one shoe bothered him, and when he took it off, the heel fell off to reveal a hidden cache of diamonds and gold pieces. Fred’s friend Harry took the jewelry to an SS officer, who, in exchange, gave him salami, bread and cheese, which the men shared.
From Mauthausen, Fred was taken by boxcar to another camp, where he worked in an underground cave on the fuselages of Messerschmitt Me 262s.
There, Fred was mistakenly given a uniform with a red triangle, which marked him as a communist. “How come you have this triangle?” a kapo asked, ordering 25 lashes. When Fred returned to the barracks, the head kapo ordered another 25 lashes; Fred passed out.
From Mauthausen, the prisoners were marched to Gunskirchen, a small, overcrowded subcamp in Upper Austria. American troops liberated the camp on May 4, 1945.
Eventually, with the help of the Haganah, Fred made his way to Genoa, Italy, where he boarded an illegal ship to Haifa and later reconnected with his Uncle Max, his father’s youngest brother. Fred fought in Israel’s War of Independence.
By 1951, Fred returned to Germany to determine if ownership of the family’s house in Merl, which his father had been forced to give to the town’s most powerful Nazi, could be restored. He was not successful. But while in Cologne, he met Sonya Berger, and six months later they were married. In January 1953, their daughter, Rita, was born.
In April 1954, sponsored by a family from their synagogue in Zell who was then living in Erie, Penn., Fred and Sonya immigrated to the United States. They also settled in Erie, where their son, Eddie, was born in July 1955.
A year later, searching for more economic opportunities, they moved to Los Angeles, where a cousin of Fred’s lived. Fred worked for several aerospace companies and then owned and ran the Cork and Bottle liquor store in Venice for 30 years, selling the business in 1993 after Sonya died. In 2001, Fred got a job as a bagger for Gelson’s in Pacific Palisades, retiring in March 2013.
Fred met Calia Mintzer at a Culver City Senior Center dance in 2002, and they married in January 2010. She has four daughters, eight grandchildren and five great-children. Fred has three grandchildren.
Throughout the years, Fred has spoken to school groups and individuals about his Holocaust experiences. Today, at 89, he continues to tell his story.
“I hope people will understand what we had to go through with those God-damned Nazis,” he said.
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