Ask the average person their image of an archivist and the likely answer you’ll get is someone resembling Wally Cox — a mild mannered bespectacled man behind a counter with rows of document shelves towering behind him.
My most distinct memory of Robert Wolfe is quite different: It is of a short, stocky man shaking with anger, banging on the door of an archive near Stuttgart and demanding access to the Nazi-era documents inside as a chill rain drizzled down on both of us, .
“In the name of history, open this door,” Wolfe bellowed — a phrase each of us started shouting again and again.
For decades, Wolfe, who died December 10 at the age of 93, was the chief archivist for captured Nazi documents at the National Archives in Washington. But by time we found ourselves standing together outside the archive near Stuttgart, he was retired and now volunteering his invaluable expertise to my project.
Together, we were seeking documents related to the IBM Corporation’s willing cooperation with the Nazi regime to facilitate the Holocaust. IBM, we would ultimately discover, eagerly helped the Nazis with its then cutting edge punch card technology to organize and systemize census data and thereby locate millions of Jews for shipment to the camps.
We had already set our appointment to visit the facility near Stuttgart with local IBM officials. But at the last minute, IBM headquarters in both New York and Paris learned the nature of our mission and ordered the local staff to deny us entry. Through the surreal medium of a security intercom we were informed that the museum had been suddenly and permanently shut down.
Wolfe’s furious reaction to this news underlined the nature of the man. First and foremost, Wolfe was a fighter. It was this spirit that ultimately helped me get the documents I needed for my 2001 book, IBM and the Holocaust, despite IBM’s stonewalling.
It was Wolfe who set the standard for preserving and organizing the U.S. government’s own Nazi-era documents. He forged the ethical strictures governing their maintenance and use that enabled several generations of Nazi-era historians and authors to do their work. His saw his stewardship of these archives as nothing less than a sacred trust, and his commitment to helping scholars was a galvanizing force in their work.
In World War II Wolfe fought in both the Pacific and European theatres. He used to brag that he survived separate head injuries in both campaigns. Those injuries just hardened him.
Fresh from his second head wound, while in France, Wolfe was assigned to the Nuremberg War Crimes prosecutor’s office, where he became familiar not only with the infamous testimony now published in many volumes of the Nuremberg War Crime Trials, but also the many thousands of linear feet of evidentiary documents that, to this day, remain largely unexploited. These millions of pages of letters, memos, telegrams, reports, notes and other documents underpinned the enormous case of genocide brought against the Hitler regime and provide proof eternal of its crimes.
Later, Wolfe helped microfilm the voluminous documents, and with a team, created the archives both at the Berlin Documentation Center in Germany and the National Archives in Washington. The files were eventually transferred to Archives II in suburban Maryland.
Many award-winning Holocaust historians began their projects with a pilgrimage to Wolfe’s jail-cell-like offices in the downtown archives. Upon arrival they would enunciate their topics. Wolfe would probe his user guides and the recesses of his personal memory, fetching 10 or 20 linear feet of files at a time for review. The historian’s relentless folder-by-folder search would ensue over many long hours and many long days, as the nuggets were uncovered, the focus sharpened, and the conclusions honed and re-honed. Wolfe would provide mid-course corrections along the way.
Many of these writers achieved recognition and success in their field. But Wolfe’s name was often relegated to a mere mention in the acknowledgements section of their books.
I first came to Wolfe in the early 1980s, long before my IBM book, when typewriters were still king. Together we explored the workings of a complex economic arrangement between the Nazi finance authorities and the Zionist Organization to rescue Jews by transferring them and their assets to Zionist jurisdiction in British Mandatory Palestine. This was the Ha’avara Agreement, the focus of my first book, The Transfer Agreement. It was Wolfe who taught me lonely courage, metal-laced scruples, fearful caution, and indefatigable diligence in archival and historical endeavors.
“You could always trust him, to guide you and save you from misinterpretation of the records,” recalled the eminent historian Shlomo Aronson on learning of his death. “He always knew to study [them] in the historical context of their birth”
For this, the historians whom he guided, of which I am one, are eternally in his debt.
Edwin Black is the author of 11 books, including the Transfer Agreement, IBM and the Holocaust, and his most recent book, Financing the Flames.