As I write this, my Jewish friends are observing Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah—Yom HaShoah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. A recent survey revealed that 63 percent of Americans don’t know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Nearly 20 percent of millennials and Gen Z in New York—New York!—feel that Jews caused the Holocaust.
Clearly, Yom HaShoah is an auspicious day, and an important day—and I have been thinking deeply about the Holocaust and our own nation’s role in it.
In fact, I could think of little else since April 11. That day began at 7 a.m. when I picked up Paul Wolff, my friend for many years, so that he could give a presentation at my Tuesday Morning Kiwanis Club. It ended that evening at Two Broads Cider in San Luis Obispo, where Paul was featured as the guest of honor at a fundraising mixer for Access for All. AFA is a local organization that advocates for persons with disabilities.
Paul Wolff is one of my favorite people to hang out with. His presentation on the dangers of fascism, hatred, and bigotry goes down more easily when you’re handed a cold mug of Two Broads’ Bearded Queen hard cider (ABV is 6.9 percent). Though Paul is 93 years old and mostly blind, his very existence is testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, and his career confirms the idea that human progress is possible.
Paul was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1929. His father was Capt. Karl Wolff, a successful Jewish businessman and a decorated infantry officer whose bravery in World War I had won him the lasting admiration of the men under his command. Twenty years after WWI, in 1938, all of Germany saw the devastation of Kristallnacht, the tragic events that signaled the rise of the SS and led directly to the Holocaust. Jews throughout Germany were rounded up and thrown in jails. Few of them survived the systematic murder of their people over the next seven years.
One of those who did survive was Capt. Karl Wolff—but only because a soldier who had served under him in WWI was also one of those ordered to seize and interrogate him.
With the secret help of his former comrade in arms, Karl Wolff was released, and his family was able to escape the Nazi regime. Ultimately, they found asylum in San Francisco. It was a favorable twist of fate that would lead to Paul’s education as an architect at UC Berkeley and a lifelong practice devoted to the field of universal design.
Every time you see a wheelchair ramp and notice the special signs for wheelchair access, you’re seeing the results of Paul’s work as a founder of the specialized field of architecture for everyone. Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has required every building in the entire nation that is open to the general public be designed to accommodate people with disabilities—especially those using wheelchairs.
Side note: Several disabled people joined Paul and me at both the Access for All event at Two Broads Cider and at my Morning Kiwanis Club. One major feature of our club is our hospitality to anyone with disabilities; many of our members have intellectual as well as physical impairments.
Paul’s presentations are largely devoted to the dangers of prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, and the false patriotism that breeds fascism and “ethnic cleansing.” Whether it is a burning hatred of Jews, a racist hostility toward people of color, an aversion to LGBTQ people, or a rejection of people with disabilities (including the elderly)—it’s all the same, really: We prefer to be among our own kind, and we’d rather not be confronted by “those people” who fail to meet our definition of “normal.”
Paul Wolff is living proof that the individuals of a despised minority—when given the opportunity to thrive in a nation that values skill and creativity—can truly add value to all of our lives. In fact, he was born the same year as Anne Frank, author of the famous diary, whose single published book has enriched the lives of millions of us. Think of what we might have learned from Anne had her life not been cut short at the age of 15 in Bergen-Belsen?
We still have too many people in this country—and a few even in this county—who dwell in the depths of hatred, racism, and bigotry. We still have too many places where people feel unwelcome or unsafe because they are living with disabilities, or are LGBTQ, or members of a racial or religious minority.
Let’s all take a cue from Paul Wolff and all those who, by their living example or by their words, are there to testify to the truth. m
John Ashbaugh probably suffers from an excessive obsession with “truth, justice, and the American Way.” Seven decades in, he’s still wondering how—or whether—the real Superman will ever arrive to lead us. Respond with a letter to the editor by emailing [email protected].