video from world war II oral history archives
Part 2 of obituary by Peter Carroll
He sailed for Spain in March 1937. Wolff recounted his experiences as a soldier in the autobiographical novel, Another Hill (1994). Moved by the enthusiasm of the other volunteers, he switched from a medical assignment to serve in a machine gun company in the newly formed Washington Battalion and went into action at Brunete in July 1937. Men inches away from him were wounded and killed, but he emerged without a nick.
A few weeks later, while on leave in Madrid, his captain, Philip Detro from Texas steered him to the Café Chicote on the Gran Via. There he met Ernest Hemingway. The 21-year old Wolff was not impressed. "Ernest is quite childish in many respects," he wrote to a friend in Brooklyn. "He wants very much to be a martyr...So much for writers," he concluded. "I'd much rather read their works than be with them." Within a month, Wolff was fighting on the Aragon front, leading a section of the machine gun company at Belchite and Quinto. By October, he commanded the machine gunners at Fuentes de Ebro. At Teruel, in January 1938, Wolff was a captain and an adjutant. Two months later, when a direct hit destroyed the battalion headquarters and killed the leadership, Wolff became the commander. He led the soldiers through the treacherous retreats, avoided capture, and wandered alone behind enemy lines until managing to swim across the Ebro.
Wolff assumed responsibility for rebuilding the broken battalion. During the training period, Robert Capa, the legendary photographer, captured Wolff standing next to Hemingway, a visual contradiction: Hemingway, stocky, an adventurer in his half-opened zippered jacket; Wolff, lanky in uniform, a beret covering his thick, dark hair, but shy, hands in his pockets, face turned downward, impatient to get on with the war.
A few weeks later, the photograph appeared in a New York Yiddish newspaper. To her surprise, Wolff's mother finally discovered what her absent son was doing in Spain. Not, as he had reported in his letters, working in a factory so that a Spanish worker could fight for the Republic, but leapfrogging through the military ranks. A "nobody at home," the soldier- poet Edwin Rolfe wrote about Wolff in his diary; "leader of men here."