Hans Wolfermann was nearly 96 when he passed away last month, lucid until the end, with his loving wife of 70 years at his side. It was, perhaps, a typical death in a Florida hospital — but his was most certainly not a typical life.
Wolfermann was a German Jew, born in 1922 in a coal mining town called Gelsenkirchen. As with all “Deutsche Juden,” his life drastically changed for the worse when Hitler came to power in 1933. Hans watched and endured the accelerating Nazi nightmare for six years before managing to escape on a Colombia-bound ship when he was 17.
He eventually made his way to neighboring Venezuela, learned to speak Spanish, became a citizen, and despite immigration restrictions even managed to rescue his parents from Germany and bring them to safety in Caracas.
At the same time, in New York City, a growing community of German Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler was developing. Among them were two vivacious girls, Anneliese and Brunhilde, who became fast friends and Americanized their way-too-Germanic names to Anne and Bunny. (Full disclosure: Bunny is this writer’s mother.)
Despite the passing of more than seven decades, Bunny clearly recalls the moment Anne became acquainted with the tall, dashing and erudite Hans, who was visiting family in New York. They began dating, and Hans soon declared that he would not return to Venezuela without her.
Bunny saw them off at the boat, thinking that her friend was essentially moving to the far side of the moon.
After Anne and Hans married, he abandoned his original goal of being a lawyer or professor, and became a successful clothing manufacturer. The couple had children and grandchildren, and were active in the Jewish community.
‘For Jewish people, it was like heaven’
At its peak, the Jewish population of Venezuela numbered 45,000.
“We had a wonderful life there,” says the couple’s daughter Doris. “For Jewish people, it was like heaven.”
Anne and Hans came to New York annually to visit friends and family, and Bunny and her husband once flew to Caracas to marvel at the idyllic life their friends had created for themselves in South America.
There were periodic echoes of the dark past. In 1979, on the 40th anniversary of the doomed WWII voyage of the St. Louis — the ship full of Jewish refugees denied entry and turned back from the US — Hans told this writer of his aunt and uncle who were on that boat, and how they sent postcards filled with desperate pleas to their relatives. Together, we later donated the historic correspondence to the US Holocaust Museum.
And then, in 1999, Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela. Once again, the lives of the Wolfermanns, along with the rest of the country’s Jews and other citizens, changed drastically for the worse.
As Chavez’s socialist revolution progressed, he ramped up his anti-Semitic rhetoric with remarks such as “the descendants of the same ones that crucified Christ… have taken possession of all the wealth of the world,” warning his opponents not to “let themselves be poisoned by those wandering Jews,” while adding vehement denunciations of Israel.
The Wolfermanns are an extraordinarily tight-knit family, but the fabric of their warm, comfortable life began to unravel. One by one, the grandchildren fled Venezuela, dispersing to Argentina, Australia, Spain, and various parts of the US. One by one, the couple’s daughters left — two to Florida, one to Barcelona.
Hans, however, remained steadfast. “We escaped from one dictator in the 1930s,” he said, “and we will not allow another one to force us from our home.”
He considered himself a proud Venezuelan after more than half a century in Caracas, and in his mid-80s was not inclined to once again undergo the upheaval and trauma of emigrating and forging a new existence elsewhere.
A decade ago, however, his staunch position became untenable and the couple reluctantly made their way to Florida. It was not the final stage of life Anne and Hans had envisioned for themselves, but they viscerally understood the Yiddish expression “Mentsch tracht und Gott lacht” — man plans and God laughs.
‘We escaped from one dictator in the 1930s and we will not allow another one to force us from our home’
Hans lived to celebrate the bar mitzvahs of two of his great-grandsons. At the first one, in 2015, as he ascended to make a blessing on the Torah, the rabbi commented on Hans’ remarkable, nearly century-long Jewish journey, and spoke of the privilege of his presence.
After the drama and turmoil, and just as the political and social chaos in Venezuela was escalating even more, that journey ended peacefully, with Hans telling Anne in his final days that he’d had enough.
The day after his last breath, his grandson Carlos summed it all up with these words about a real-life Wandering Jew: “Hans Wolfermann did not die in his native land, nor where he made his life, nor where he buried his dead. He showed us that geographical distance was not more powerful than our deep ties. Hans Wolfermann was born in Gelsenkirchen, loved in Caracas, and left forever, yesterday.”