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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, June 16, 2024

Dr. Robert Wolf honors his family’s survival of the Holocaust and Hungarian Revolution with novel ‘Not A Real Enemy’

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Robert Wolf is pictured holding his latest book, Not a Real Enemy

Amid rising antisemitism, Holocaust education has been particularly notable. In “Not a Real Enemy: The True Story of a Hungarian Jewish Man’s Fight For Freedom,” Dr. Robert J. Wolf (LA’84) and Janice Harper tell the story of Wolf’s father Ervin’s escape from Hungary after surviving both the Holocaust and the Hungarian Revolution, as well as the stories of both his mother and his grandparents.

“My legacy to my family is this book, it’s my parents’ memory,” Wolf said.

Wolf grew up as the only child of Ervin and Judit Wolf in Mount Clemens, Mich. Ervin was an OB-GYN, and he inspired Wolf to become a doctor himself. Wolf fondly remembers going to work with his father as a kid and how happy Ervin seemed at work.

“He loved delivering babies, he loved going to the hospital,” Wolf said. “I remember how friendly he was to everybody … always smiling, always enthusiastic, [I’d] never seen him fighting with anybody, and he was definitely a role model for me.”

After graduating as the salutatorian of his high school class, Wolf decided to leave Michigan and pursue his undergraduate education at Tufts. He graduated in 1984 with a double major in biology and psychology.

“I liked the private school idea, getting out of the state and just exploring something different, and I’m glad I did,” Wolf said. “I still have great friends from Tufts, and I’ve lived half my life in New England.”

While Wolf had fewer discussions growing up about the Holocaust with his parents, the topic became more frequently discussed as he grew older.

“My mom and dad were both historians in their own right, Holocaust educators,” Wolf said. “They were very well-rounded people, but included in that were lessons about history, Hungary’s history specifically, and they were very patriotic to Hungary even though they had to leave it. … They talked about it more frequently as we got older.”

During the Holocaust, Ervin was in forced labor camps and on the run, while Judit hid with her family on an isolated farm. Ervin’s parents and Judit’s grandfather were deported to Auschwitz, where they died.

“I’m lucky to be here, my mom and dad were lucky, they were also smart, they had a little bit of … as I like to call it, ‘the hand of God,’” Wolf said. “They had lots of guts, a lot of brains, common sense, … and my dad had a lot of integrity, and I think that really helped him to survive too.”

Wolf currently lives in Florida after a 33-year career as a neuroradiologist. It was not until after his parents’ passing, his father in 1997 and his mother in 2016, that Wolf realized the possibility of writing a biography on his father. In the 1970s, Ervin wrote an autobiography detailing his life and experiences during World War II and the Hungarian Revolution. After his mother passed away in 2016, a historian family friend gave Wolf the disc containing his father’s autobiography, which led him to revisit his father’s stories.

“I read the book many years before and didn’t think much of it except for his very first escape — he had multiple escapes,” Wolf said. “But this time I read it and I said, ‘Oh my god, all these stories are so amazing, they’re astounding, they’re unbelievable.’ … I was just so fascinated with the book that I turned it into a biography in 2018.”

Wolf co-authored “Not A Real Enemy”with Janice Harper, and the pair turned the biography into a novel consisting of 40 stories. These stories include a history of Hungary from World War I until the country’s revolution in 1956, stories about Ervin Wolf’s family and Ervin’s multiple escapes in Europe.

“It’s not just a biography [from] point A to point B, … there’s conversation in it, there’s parallel stories, there’s converging stories, there’s letters to and from home, and the dialogue is there and the descriptions are palpable,” Wolf said. “It’s very picturesque, you can actually see how the table is set, you can smell the environment.”

The title itself has a particular meaning, although Wolf and Harper have different interpretations of the title. Harper sees “Not a Real Enemy” as referring to Ervin and Judit Wolf’s apparent neutrality toward the prevailing Communists and Nazi Party authorities, but Wolf also has a simpler interpretation of the title’s significance.

“Right before my dad’s final escape in 1956, right after the Hungarian revolution, he actually snuck into the medical center between security guards and snuck into the files and looked up his dossier, and the Russians described him as ‘not a real enemy,’” Wolf said. “The real reason he wanted to do that is that if they got caught or arrested, he wanted to make sure there was no bounty over his head.”

Wolf’s parents were active participants during the Hungarian Revolution. In addition to being an OB-GYN, Ervin worked as a trauma surgeon as people were injured. Meanwhile, Judit ran the blood bank in the hospital during the revolution while she was a medical student. Wolf’s parents successfully fled from Hungary in late 1956 and arrived in the U.S. in January 1957. While Judit was unable to continue her medical education after it was cut short when she and Ervin fled Hungary, Ervin redid his residency in the U.S. and continued his career as an OB-GYN.

“He ends up delivering 10,000 babies which is redemption for sure, … and in the end you feel good like you’ll have tears of joy in the end, and I don’t know if all the Holocaust books have that,” Wolf said.

While writing this biography came with its challenges, Wolf describes the writing process as a great learning experience.

“The writing experience was an emotional one too,” Wolf said. “[Both my parents] were gone at the time so I had to step away sometimes. … It’s been a great experience, a heartfelt experience, a labor of love, and I guess that’s been my big motivation and just the amazing stories that were there.”

Wolf hopes his book will become available in more museums and libraries. The book can be found in bookstores like Barnes & Noble and on Amazon, but the sale of Wolf’s book at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. has been particularly meaningful. Wolf said 10% of proceeds from book sales are donated to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. Some of the key takeaways Wolf feels readers will find from the book include messages of determination, fighting antisemitism and the idea of life being susceptible to change at any moment.

“The idea that no matter how harrowing your life can be, … there’s always an effort you can make to try to get through that and try to move on with your life, and my dad was a prototype of that,” Wolf said. “The other thing is, things can change in a hurry for any of us the way the world is, … and that’s what happened with my dad and his parents.” 

Wolf feels his book is important because it allows readers to learn about Hungarian history, like the Hungarian Revolution, as well as help emphasize the importance of combating antisemitism.

“There are a lot [of books] with the same message, I just happen to think mine is exciting, it keeps you reading because it’s got so many twists and turns in it, and meanwhile you say, ‘Geez, all this because I’m Jewish!’” Wolf said. “My dad was an intelligent guy who contributed to society and [he was] on the run.”

Wolf feels Holocaust education is important in response to rising hate crimes and discriminatory behaviors in the U.S., and he feels readers can learn a lot from the life of his parents just as he was able to learn from them.

“Being insulted because you’re Jewish so many times and being persecuted for so many years, people start to believe it, and my dad and mom didn’t, they were proud of their heritage,” Wolf said. “On the other hand, they would call out people who misbehaved no matter what race, religion, creed, and that’s a big lesson to me too.”