At a recent seder, Manfred Wolf told another guest that he is more than a bit “schizophrenic,” with “many voices inside.” Laughing, Wolf adds, “In my thank-you note to the hostess, I had to explain myself.”
A teacher, a writer and a self-described “Jewish raconteur,” Wolf, 81, elaborates: “Part of me is a civilized Western European Jew. I have a touch of Eastern European Jew as well. And part of me is a censorious Dutchman. As an adolescent living in Curaçao, I wanted to be a hell-raiser, but I was not very good at it.”
Sitting in his dining room in San Francisco, Wolf excels in the role of gracious host and interviewee, offering tea and cookies. His immediate objective is to talk about his latest book, “Survival in Paradise: Sketches from a Refugee Life in Curaçao,” a memoir.
In the book, he recounts how his family left Germany for the Netherlands before World War II. They were happy at first. Then came the years when the family was always just a few harrowing steps from discovery by the Nazis. They struggled to get the right papers — or at least papers that looked right — and then traveled across France and Spain.
Next, they boarded a Portuguese ship that took them to Curaçao, then a Dutch colony in the West Indies. Wolf was 9. He lived on the island with his mother, father and brother from 1942 to 1951, when he left to attend Brandeis University.
“My mother was a cheerful presence, but my father was gloomy, always wondering if we should move somewhere that would be safer,” Wolf says. “In spite of the fact that he saved us, my father’s heart was forever stuck in a shtetl.”
Because Wolf and his brother didn’t carry the full weight of their father’s fears, they were in the mood for adventure on their new island home. “It was fun to hang out with the other kids and look at girls,” Wolf says. “That occupied me more than whether a genocide was going on in Europe. Of course, we did not know the details then.”
In the book — and in an interview — Wolf demonstrates some of the languages he heard in Curaçao: Dutch, German, Yiddish, Papiamentu, French and Spanish. He especially enjoyed writing about how his classmates played with language, twisting ordinary sentences into ritual insults. “Remembering, I laughed out loud as I was writing,” he says.
That was Wolf then. Who is he now? ”Sort of a boring academic. Even when I was still a kid, people would ask if I were a teacher. I have that academic look, a look that is serious, cerebral and a little judgmental.”
Wolf teaches history and philosophy courses at the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco. He is a professor emeritus at San Francisco State University, where he taught English literature full time from 1956 to 1995. He also has taught American literature and American studies at the University of Helsinki and later, Dutch studies at U.C. Berkeley.
“If you have a bit of a brain and a few social skills, academia is the most wonderful place imaginable,” Wolf says. In retirement, he has turned to writing. For 20 years, he has penned a column for the West Portal Monthly. Some of those columns are collected in the book “Almost a Foreign Country,” published in 2008. He also edited “Amsterdam: A Traveler’s Literary Companion,” published in 2001.
For the past year, many of Wolf’s columns have been about the assimilation of Muslims living in Europe. “Those columns are clearly going toward a book, and I have a gleam in the eye about another topic: the early 1950s. So often, when people write about the ’50s, they get them wrong,” he says. “I would include a bit about marriage, though not necessarily mine.”
Wolf moved with his wife from Chicago to San Francisco in 1956. He is now divorced, with three grown sons and four grandchildren. “They come to visit, I go visit them and we have big reunions at Thanksgiving,” Wolf says. He is a member of Congregation B’nai Emunah.
In conversation, as in “Survival in Paradise,” a recurring theme is Wolf’s concern about freeing himself from the sorrow and fear that colored his father’s world. Asked if somewhere in his multiplicity of personas Wolf still embodies some of that, he replies, “In my gloomier moods, I see my father in me.”
More often, he adds, Wolf tries to emulate his mother. “She was a good listener, so good that it was hard to tell if she was interested in the conversation or feigning interest. She would establish direct eye contact and add a tilt of the head,” he says, doing just that.
“That’s the part of me I think I like the best.”