My most distinct memory of Robert Wolfe was that day in October of 1999 when he stood in the dreary, grey rain outside a heretofore unknown archive in Sindelfingen, Germany, a suburb of Stuttgart. He was attempting to gain entry when the archive unexpectedly shuttered its doors and refused him. With the chilled drizzle running down his cheeks, Wolfe summoned an intense inner anger, born of decades of devotion to documenting Nazi history. He shook with disbelief and demanded they open the door. They would not. No matter. Despite that refusal, Wolfe persevered, and the information was revealed.
Who was Robert Wolfe? Wolfe was the irreplaceable chief archivist for captured Nazi documents at their main repository, the National Archives and Record Administration in Washington, D.C. He died just before dawn this December 10, 2014, at the age of 93.
With his death, a legacy also dies.
Wolfe set the standard, hammered together the ethical structures, and single-handedly galvanized a generation of Holocaust and Nazi-era historians and authors — including me.
So this remembrance is actually my back story, which in large measure is part of Wolfe’s front story.
First and foremost, Wolfe was a fighting man. He fought in both the Pacific and European theatres and used to brag he survived separate head injuries in both campaigns. Those injuries just hardened him.
Fresh from his second head wound, while in France, he was assigned to the Nuremberg War Crimes prosecutor’s office, where he became familiar not only with the infamous testimony now published in many volumes of the Nuremberg Trials, but also the many thousands of linear feet of evidentiary documents that, to this day, remain largely unexploited. These are the millions of pages of letters, memos, telegrams, reports, notes and other documents that constructed the enormous case of genocide brought against the Hitler regime and provide proof eternal of the crimes.
Later, Wolfe helped microfilm the voluminous documents, and with a team, created the archives both at the Berlin Documentation Center in Germany and the National Archives in downtown Washington D.C., Later the files were transferred to Archives II in suburban Maryland.
A generation of thirsty historians made pilgrimages to Wolfe’s jail-cell-like offices at the Archives, where each austere room was blocked by a locked cage door with attached room-to-room sign-in and sign-out sheets.
The process went like this: First, the historian would enunciate his topic. Second, Wolfe would reach into his user guides and the recesses of his personal memory, fetching 10 or 20 linear feet of files at a time for review. The historian’s relentless folder-by-folder search would ensue over many long hours and many long days, as the nuggets were uncovered, the focus sharpened, and the conclusions honed and re-honed. Wolfe would provide mid-course corrections along the way.
Many award-winning Holocaust historians began their project like this and went on to produce major published works. Many achieved a measure of recognition and success in their field. But Wolfe’s name was often relegated to a mere mention in a long “thank you” list in the book’s acknowledgements.
In my case, at least two projects were revelations to both of us. I first came to Wolfe in the early 1980’s, when typewriters were still king. Together we explored the undiscovered workings of a complex economic arrangement between the Nazi finance authorities and the Zionist Organization to rescue Jews by transferring them and their assets to Jewish Palestine. This was the Ha’avara Agreement which led to my first book, The Transfer Agreement. It was Wolfe who taught me lonely courage, metal-laced scruples, fearful caution, and indefatigable diligence in archival and historical endeavor. He helped me every step of the way on that first book, validated my findings, held my hand, palm to palm, and pushed me through the door toward the loneliness of the historian who answers only to history and allows only the future to judge.
He and I worked together on many other projects through the years, but most salient was my discovery that IBM had consciously co-planned and co-organized Hitler’s Holocaust using the company’s advanced customized punch card technology. Wolfe had just retired from the National Archives when I embarked upon that project. He agreed to help me find the documentary proof. He travelled with me through Germany as we visited archive after archive.
Known everywhere as an eminent archivist and the principal custodian of the Nazi papers, we received special and expedited access to all files held by the many private and public repositories scattered across Germany. When Wolfe appeared, many doors instantly opened. After any day’s eye-straining work, we would gather with the local experts to compare notes and distill our discoveries.
One day, near the end, we had stealthily arranged to visit an unknown IBM archive and museum devoted to punch cards, that was quietly maintained by aficionados of the technology in a company facility in the Sindelfingen, located near Stuttgart, Germany. The files were uniquely extraordinary, comprising the Nazi-era customer communications and technical client advisories, outlining how to achieve, step-by-step, Hitler’s tasks of systematically persecuting and destroying the Jews. Our appointment was set.
But at the last minute, IBM headquarters in both New York and Paris learned the nature of our mission. When we showed up at the appointed time, we were informed through the surreal medium of a security intercom that the archive and museum had been suddenly and permanently shut down. We could not even come inside.
With the hard-chilled rain drizzling down our cheeks, Wolfe summoned an intense inner anger born of decades of devotion to documenting Nazi history. He shook with disbelief and demanded they open the door. I remember the moment. “In the name of history, open this door!”
Each of us said it over and over again. IBM would not.
No matter. Despite that refusal, Wolfe and I persevered. Ultimately, the information indicting IBM was assembled, verified, cross-checked, vetted, and revealed to the world in meticulous detail. That would not have been possible without the unique expertise and help of Robert Wolfe.
There are many other such compelling stories to be told by other authors.
Eminent historian Shlomo Aronson, author of numerous distinguished volumes, offered this memory. “I have received the sad news about Bob Wolfe’s decease …. Bob was not only a mentor, but our dear colleague, a treasurer of the WWII records at the US National Archives, and a warm, humorous mensch. You could always trust him, to guide you and save you from misinterpretation of the records, which he always knew to study in the historical context of their birth. My book, Hitler, the Allies, and the Jews (Cambridge University Press, New York, paper edition 2006) was dedicated among others to Robert Wolfe at the top of the list. We historians will cherish his memory.”
Aronson’s tribute is replicated in many volumes in many languages. Mine also.
With Wolfe’s passing, so passes a special quality at the National Archives–the specialist. In days gone by, the Archives was staffed by towering experts who each knew the inner molecular makeup of certain realms of investigation that they studied: the camps, the ghettos, the battlefields, the trains, the economics, the diplomacy, the Nazi Party inner workings — indeed, the dark sinew of men, monsters, and methods that made Hitler’s war against humanity what it was. These experts have mainly retired or died off, and the remaining cadre have now been relegated to the status of “generalists,” a little of everything. The result is the loss of the irreplaceable experts like Wolfe who knew the deeply submerged truths about the Third Reich and how to document them. The new crop of archivists will not be bold discoverers, they will be just clerical searchers.
I have lost a friend. The National Archives has lost a resource. But mostly, history has lost a valiant soldier.