A very full life

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - ME­MOIR ANTHEA GER­RIE

Like many a pen­sioner, she lives on the Sus­sex coast sur­rounded by an­tique fur­ni­ture, good china and framed pic­tures of her grand­chil­dren. But au­thor and per­former Dorit Oliver-Wolff has hardly re­tired. She writes, lec­tures and is still fit enough to climb four flights of stairs to her top-floor flat. At 81, she is full of plans for the fu­ture.

“There will be a sec­ond book — then there’s a song I want to record to raise money for chil­dren,” says the au­thor of Yel­low Star to Pop Star, a post-Holo­caust me­moir she will be retelling at JW3 dur­ing Jewish Book Week. It is packed with hair-rais­ing tales about how she sur­vived Hungary dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion, an an­tisemitic post­war Ser­bia and a Greek port full of lech­er­ous sailors for whom she per­formed as a teenage belly-dancer.

The book, a con­tender for this year’s Peo­ple’s Book Prize, also swings read­ers through Is­rael, where her am­bi­tious mother was not con­tent to linger; Turkey, where, as a state­less child with no pass­port, the price of an artist’s visa was com­pul­sory danc­ing; and Germany, where she achieved singing star­dom.

It was only when she set­tled per­ma­nently in Eng­land in her twen­ties that she man­aged to live rather than merely sur­vive.

“I started my child­hood when I be­came a mother and learned how to play,” says the grand­mother of five whose quiet life for the past 50 years was very wel­come af­ter her early strug­gle for sur­vival.

In the UK, she ran fashion and an­tique shops as well as writ­ing, lec­tur­ing and giv­ing the odd con­cert.

She will never for­get her child­hood years, par­tic­u­larly the nine months spent hid­ing in a cel­lar at the end of the war. The girl born Theodora Han­dler emerged in 1945 as a three-stone skele­ton who had lost all her hair. She was given just six months to live when her mother took her home to Novi Sad in Ser­bia.

That di­ag­no­sis made her de­ter­mined to sur­vive: “I was nine, and when I found the Serbs, like the Hun­gar­i­ans, spit­ting at me be­cause I was a Jew, I de­cided I was not go­ing to be a vic­tim. I heard the lung spe­cial­ist telling my mother I was un­likely to sur­vive more than six months, and I de­cided that was not enough time for ev­ery­thing I wanted to do.

“I have no idea how I found the strength, but I some­how got through the hu­mil­i­a­tion of those peo­ple call­ing me ‘baldy’ and laugh­ing at my beak. I was de­ter­mined to be­come a suc­cess­ful singer.”

Singing got the lit­tle girl through the hor­rors of wartime. Her tal­ent was spot­ted early and, be­fore the war, she’d danced for the King of Yu­goslavia.

Dur­ing the war, when she was hid­den by day, she risked dis­cov­ery some nights by tak­ing refuge in air-raid shel­ters, where her lit­tle songs drew a crowd. Dorit Oliv­erWolff, as a star in post-war Germany and (be­low) with hus­band Frank.

“I didn’t know then that some peo­ple had a bed they could sleep in ev­ery night and that some ate ev­ery day; for us to have some­thing to eat when we could get it was amaz­ing. Only when I be­came a demi-adult did I re­alise.”

Af­ter the war, she was happy in the new state of Is­rael, but her mother was not. They left for Turkey where Dorit at­tended a French con­vent school and danced for money at night. “At night, I wore fish­net tights, stiletto heels, false eye­lashes and marabou feath­ers, singing and danc­ing un­der the spot­light.

“Dur­ing the day, I wore my grey uni­form with knee-high socks and a tie. If I had been dis­cov­ered danc­ing at night by any of my teach­ers, I would have been ex­pelled in­stantly.”

Later, they moved to Greece, where she was reg­u­larly groped by sailors who as­sumed that, like some other mem­bers of her danc­ing troupe, she was for sale: “At the age when I should have been study­ing for my A-lev­els, I was in Pi­raeus with pros­ti­tutes,” she re­calls. She es­caped to Mu­nich Univer­sity — “I was a sharp lit­tle cookie” — and even­tu­ally set­tled in Germany, where she be­came a night-club singer and record­ing artist. In Germany, she met her first hus­band, a Brit who gave her the longed-for le­git­i­macy of a Bri­tish pass­port but re­fused for years to grant her a di­vorce when the ro­mance faded. She later fell in love with a charmer who fa­thered her first child, De­siree, but turned out to be two-tim­ing her; Dorit raised her daugh­ter alone be­fore meet­ing Frank, the sec­ond Brit to court her in Germany. They mar­ried in 1963 and have a son, Mark.

Their fam­ily life has not been with­out its up and downs: “Frank and I were di­vorced for 18 years, and only re­mar­ried 10 years ago af­ter I moved into this flat across the hall from him,” she ex­plains. “The di­vorce was my idea; Frank has al­ways been my best friend and never tried to change me, which I re­spect. We agreed to dis­agree and this kind of liv­ing ar­range­ment suits us bet­ter.”

Dorit long ago for­gave the Ger­mans — “it is ridicu­lous to hate a whole race,” she says, re­mem­ber­ing how a “good” Nazi let her mother out of the interrogation room when Dorit, wait­ing next door and un­aware of what was about to hap­pen, tugged at his heart­strings by ask­ing him about the chil­dren — his own — in a pho­to­graph frame on his desk.

It is less clear whether Dorit has for­given her mother, Zita Magda who, de­spite a fierce pro­tec­tive gene in the face of per­se­cu­tion, be­haved with ap­palling self­ish­ness later af­ter she found part­ners to re­place Dorit’s fa­ther, who per­ished dur­ing the war.

You sense that de­spite re­mem­ber­ing the “brave sol­dier” who risked his own life in that interrogation suite to save theirs, Dorit never got over the shock of her mother mar­ry­ing a Ger­man: “She was al­ways a hero to me and sud- denly I thought she was a slut. I couldn’t let my daugh­ter do some of the things she did. She told peo­ple very pri­vate things about me, which I thought was a ter­ri­ble be­trayal. Only when she had se­nile de­men­tia did she start to be­come nice to me, and it seemed so un­fair.”

Nev­er­the­less, Zita Magda was a for­mi­da­ble woman who kept her only child alive through years of dodg­ing and div­ing, re­fus­ing to sew a yel­low star on her own or her daugh­ter’s cloth­ing.

“I had to of­ten hide for hours on end while my mother was out at work, and she al­ways made it seem like a game.”

Zita Magda sur­vived through her many tal­ents — as a nurse, a danc­ing teacher and a re­set­tle­ment worker for the UN. Even­tu­ally, she fol­lowed her daugh­ter to Sus­sex and founded a spe­cial­ist col­lege for dyslexic chil­dren.

What­ever her bit­ter­ness about her mother, Dorit is proud of her­self for re­fus­ing to be held back by the trau­mas of her past. “So many Holo­caust sur­vivors stay vic­tims for the rest of their lives, and I’m very sad for them be­cause we only have one life, and liv­ing it and be­ing suc­cess­ful is the best re­venge.”

She kept quiet about her wartime ex­pe­ri­ences for a long time, un­til watch­ing her five grand­chil­dren leave food on their plates made her feel bound to speak out.

“I didn’t want to bom­bard them about my past, but it would up­set me. I told them: ‘When I was your age I would have licked the plate; I didn’t taste chicken till I was 13 years old.’ And lit­tle by lit­tle we started talk­ing.”

Five years ago, her daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter in­sisted on tak­ing her back to Bu­dapest, which was a bit­ter-sweet ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I never got over be­ing spat at there be­cause I looked Jewish and even now there is an­tisemitism in Hungary. I didn’t want to go, but cu­rios­ity killed the cat and I went back to the house where for nine months I had hid­den in the cel­lar.”

She re­lived the aw­ful sight of those times of a Jewish girl from the build­ing op­po­site leap­ing to her death from a high floor rather than be cap­tured by the SS dur­ing a raid.

“The tiles in that court­yard were still the pre­cise shade of mus­tard yel­low I had re­mem­bered — and I couldn’t make my­self go down into the cel­lar. I couldn’t speak for three or four hours af­ter that visit — but it was the cat­a­lyst for the book; I came back and started writ­ing.”

That cathar­tic ex­pe­ri­ence comes with a high price, she ad­mits. “Ev­ery day for me is Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day with scenes I can’t for­get, and I am some­times swept by melan­choly. But I try to con­trol it, oth­er­wise the life that has been given to me would be a waste. I try to wake up ev­ery morn­ing and say: ‘It’s a beau­ti­ful day.’”

Dorit Oliver-Wolff is speak­ing at JW3 on Fe­bru­ary 28 as part of Jewish Book Week.

‘From Yel­low Star to Pop Star’ is pub­lished by RedDoor Pub­lish­ing.

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