Henri Wolff wanted to go to Poland for the recent ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, but he was too sick to make the trip. He had already been there; according to his granddaughter, Caroline Panige, Wolff had accompanied junior high and high school groups to Auschwitz 44 times.
Many of the student trips were one-day affairs, a quick plane ride from Paris to Krakow and then a bus ride to the site of the camp.
Wolff believed that educating young people about the Nazis’ killing machine was the best way to prevent another genocide. He wasn’t preaching only to the converted — most of the groups he accompanied were not Jewish.
“I met Henri on one of those trips to Auschwitz, ” said Rabbi Olivier Kaufmann from the synagogue on the Place des Vosges in Paris. “He talked to the kids with a soft, serene voice. He never got tired of talking to them. His intense desire to share was inspiring.”
After a long battle with pancreatic cancer, Wolff died at home March 17. He was 79. Funeral services were at the Bagneux Cemetery south of Paris, led by Kaufman and attended by hundreds of people.
Wolff was born near Lodz, Poland. His parents moved to Belgium, fled when the Germans invaded, and by 1942 were in southern France.
On Aug. 26, 1942, the family was among 10,000 Jews rounded up by French police. The family was sent to the Drancy camp near Paris. Wolff and his mother were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in convoy No. 26. He was 16.
“She was 36 years old and beautiful,” Wolff said in October. “At Birkenau, we were being separated, and she said to me, ‘Meet me at Saint Hilaire after this is over.’ But I never saw her again. She was gassed on Sept. 3. She had 36 hours to live, but didn’t know it. I didn’t know it either.”
Wolff told the story calmly, his blue eyes unwavering. His voice was soft. This was the way he told the story to the tens of thousands of young students he taught.
The U.S. 4th Army liberated Wolff and 400 others on April 28, 1945.
He and his tough young survivor friends hung around in France. Some went to Israel in 1948 to fight, and he followed them.
“I was in Tel Aviv for the U.N. vote, when Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir said ‘We have a country now,’ and we all cried,” he said. “These tough, lucky survivors were crying. I was never ashamed, but I was afraid.”
He served in the Israeli army during the 1948 War of Independence and was injured in the famous battle of Latrun, where hundreds of European boys, who did not speak a word of Hebrew, tried to take the hill from crack Arab Legion troops. He was sent back to France with the other wounded.
“In that battle, I don’t think I killed anyone,” he said. “I’m glad for that. I didn’t want to kill anyone. But I learned not to be afraid, and I have always been grateful for that.”
Back in France, Wolff went into the shoe business. He and his wife raised three children. He became part of French society and dedicated himself to teaching youngsters about the Holocaust.
As he said of his fellow survivors: “We raised families. A number of us spent years accompanying groups of young people to Auschwitz. We had to share our experiences and hopes.”
He was speaking about himself as well.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.