Meeting Holocaust survivor Dorit Oliver Wolff was a fascinating but shocking experience for everyone at Green Room Productions. Dorit was a wonderful character and speaker who considered herself to be a survivor of the Holocaust rather than a victim. Despite her strong European accent, when people ask her where she is from, she says ‘Eastbourne’ and has the attitude that when her phone beeps at night and wakes her up, it is a good thing because it shows her she’s not dead. Here is her extraordinary tale.
Dorit describes her early life as ‘cushy’ as her mother was a dance teacher for King Peter of Yugoslavia and she herself once danced for the King. In 1941, everything changed when her house was bombed without any prior warning. At only six years old, she awoke in fear choking from the dust and smoke before being dragged out into the street in just her nighty with no shoes on. It was April and still very cold in Belgrade. People were stampeding everywhere so Dorit had to desperately clutch her mother’s hand so she wouldn’t be swept away by the mass of panicking people. At one point, she passed beneath the tramlines and found a sticky red substance dripping down on her. She looked up to see body parts and viscera hanging from the wires while aeroplanes swept down and gunned down fleeing people. Parents were trying to shield their children with their bodies.
This was the start of an ongoing nightmare of constantly running in fear. After being separated from her father, who was subsequently worked to death before he turned 30 in a concentration camp, Dorit and her mother hitchhiked to Budapest where they were faced with some vile anti-Jewish propaganda and a fully grown women once spat in Dorit’s face in a park. Dorit hadn’t even realised she looked Jewish or had any real understanding of what it meant to be Jewish at that time.
Dorit, with hindsight, believes her mother began working with the underground movement and she disguised herself as a Red Cross nurse. She remembers them constantly needing to move from place to place to avoid being taken into a Jew house and she remembers them having to continually scavenge for food. As they had no food coupons, they had to live on bread and hot oil with garlic (if they were lucky) and hot water to drink. Occasionally, they manage to scavenge some potato peels.
Because her mother posed as a nurse, Dorit had to hide in the hospital while her mother worked (learning from watching as she had no formal training whatsoever) and occasionally saw things that no child of six and half should have to see including a child birth at a very graphic angle. They lived by moving safe house almost daily and Dorit became so thin and frail that people thought she was five rather than seven.
In one incident, Dorit and her mother were at a railway station on Christmas Eve when the Nazis appeared suddenly and set up a cordon around all the people so they could check everyone’s papers. They even told the young men to show them their penises. If they were circumcised, they would be taken away or possibly shot on the spot. Fortunately for Dorit, her mother was very quick thinking and, spotting a woman selling Christmas trees, she bought the smallest one and marched straight up to the nearest Nazi officer. She asked if she could be checked first as she wanted to have time to light the tree before her night shift at the hospital (she was wearing her uniform). The officer waved her through without checking her papers which was good as they had no papers and would have been in serious trouble if they had checked.
Dorit was captured by the Nazis on one occasion when their landlady, who was always lovely to her when she saw her, reported her to the Nazis. She was taken to a sorting house all on her own and was the only child there. From there, Jews were taken on to the concentration camps. She saw people being taken away every day, never to return. After three months, a cleaner took her out and hid her in a coal room. After that, she smuggled her out in a basket full of heavily soiled bedsheets. Dorit said the smell was like something she had never experienced in her life and it made her eyes water. She was reunited with her mother and they fled the city. It was this escape that convinced her, later on, that her mother was in with the underground.
The two spent the last nine months of the war living in the air raid shelter of a ruined house in Budapest. People raided ruined shops to stay alive and, by the time they were liberated, Dorit was nine years old, roughly three stone in weight with no hair, pleurisy, pneumonia and scurvy. She barely ate and, as a final insult, her mother, granny and her had to hide and watch as the Russian ‘liberators’ raped everyone in the shelter including men, women and children. Luckily, the proper Russian army arrived before they were found by the rapists.
Throughout the entire ordeal, Dorit kept her spirits up by singing. At age ten and a half, she got a scholarship to a music school before moving to Israel. Her mother helped children who were victims of Doctor Mengele who were so traumatised, they were like frightened animals. She met a pair of twins who would never walk straight because of what was done to them and children who were frightened of toilets because they had had their heads bashed against them. Dorit’s mother had the idea that the doctors and nurses working with the children should wear normal clothes instead of uniforms and this produced a hugely positive effect on the children. Her mother went on to do work that lead to universities offering extra time in exams to dyslexic students.
Dorit later moved to Turkey and went on to sing in jazz clubs while studying at Munich University. She became famous and was actually a pin up for German soldiers. She once sang for German airmen where she sang a Hebrew song and they all clapped along. It gave her a huge sense of triumph that she had survived and come so far. She moved to England in 1962 and thinks it’s incredibly important to keep telling her story so future generations can learn from her experiences.
Five years ago, she visited Budapest and saw the sorting house she escaped from. She also saw the house where she’d hidden in the air raid shelter at the end of the war but she couldn’t bring herself to go into the shelter. She found herself shaking and feeling faint when she tried.
We listened enraptured to her amazing story and couldn’t believe that such atrocities had happened within living memory. Dorit is an absolutely inspiring character and a wonderful story teller. We feel deeply honoured to have heard her story in person.
In approaching such an important subject as the Holocaust, we hope to do it justice when we present East of Berlin at The Lamb Theatre from 22nd to 25th November. Tickets are available here.