Like many a pensioner, she lives on the Sussex coast surrounded by antique furniture, good china and framed pictures of her grandchildren. But author and performer Dorit Oliver-Wolff has hardly retired. She writes, lectures and is still fit enough to climb four flights of stairs to her top-floor flat. At 81, she is full of plans for the future.
“There will be a second book — then there’s a song I want to record to raise money for children,” says the author of Yellow Star to Pop Star, a post-Holocaust memoir she will be retelling at JW3 during Jewish Book Week. It is packed with hair-raising tales about how she survived Hungary during the Nazi occupation, an antisemitic postwar Serbia and a Greek port full of lecherous sailors for whom she performed as a teenage belly-dancer.
The book, a contender for this year’s People’s Book Prize, also swings readers through Israel, where her ambitious mother was not content to linger; Turkey, where, as a stateless child with no passport, the price of an artist’s visa was compulsory dancing; and Germany, where she achieved singing stardom.
It was only when she settled permanently in England in her twenties that she managed to live rather than merely survive.
“I started my childhood when I became a mother and learned how to play,” says the grandmother of five whose quiet life for the past 50 years was very welcome after her early struggle for survival.
In the UK, she ran fashion and antique shops as well as writing, lecturing and giving the odd concert.
She will never forget her childhood years, particularly the nine months spent hiding in a cellar at the end of the war. The girl born Theodora Handler emerged in 1945 as a three-stone skeleton who had lost all her hair. She was given just six months to live when her mother took her home to Novi Sad in Serbia.
That diagnosis made her determined to survive: “I was nine, and when I found the Serbs, like the Hungarians, spitting at me because I was a Jew, I decided I was not going to be a victim. I heard the lung specialist telling my mother I was unlikely to survive more than six months, and I decided that was not enough time for everything I wanted to do.
“I have no idea how I found the strength, but I somehow got through the humiliation of those people calling me ‘baldy’ and laughing at my beak. I was determined to become a successful singer.”
Singing got the little girl through the horrors of wartime. Her talent was spotted early and, before the war, she’d danced for the King of Yugoslavia.
During the war, when she was hidden by day, she risked discovery some nights by taking refuge in air-raid shelters, where her little songs drew a crowd.
“I didn’t know then that some people had a bed they could sleep in every night and that some ate every day; for us to have something to eat when we could get it was amazing. Only when I became a demi-adult did I realise.”
After the war, she was happy in the new state of Israel, but her mother was not. They left for Turkey where Dorit attended a French convent school and danced for money at night. “At night, I wore fishnet tights, stiletto heels, false eyelashes and marabou feathers, singing and dancing under the spotlight. “During the day, I wore my grey uniform with knee-high socks and a tie. If I had been discovered dancing at night by any of my teachers, I would have been expelled instantly.”
Later, they moved to Greece, where she was regularly groped by sailors who assumed that, like some other members of her dancing troupe, she was for sale: “At the age when I should have been studying for my A-levels, I was in Piraeus with prostitutes,” she recalls.
She escaped to Munich University — “I was a sharp little cookie” — and eventually settled in Germany, where she became a night-club singer and recording artist.
In Germany, she met her first husband, a Brit who gave her the longed-for legitimacy of a British passport but refused for years to grant her a divorce when the romance faded. She later fell in love with a charmer who fathered her first child, Desiree, but turned out to be two-timing her; Dorit raised her daughter alone before meeting Frank, the second Brit to court her in Germany. They married in 1963 and have a son, Mark.
Their family life has not been without its up and downs: “Frank and I were divorced for 18 years, and only remarried 10 years ago after I moved into this flat across the hall from him,” she explains. “The divorce was my idea; Frank has always been my best friend and never tried to change me, which I respect. We agreed to disagree and this kind of living arrangement suits us better.”
Dorit long ago forgave the Germans — “it is ridiculous to hate a whole race,” she says, remembering how a “good” Nazi let her mother out of the interrogation room when Dorit, waiting next door and unaware of what was about to happen, tugged at his heartstrings by asking him about the children — his own — in a photograph frame on his desk.
It is less clear whether Dorit has forgiven her mother, Zita Magda who, despite a fierce protective gene in the face of persecution, behaved with appalling selfishness later after she found partners to replace Dorit’s father, who perished during the war.
You sense that despite remembering the “brave soldier” who risked his own life in that interrogation suite to save theirs, Dorit never got over the shock of her mother marrying a German: “She was always a hero to me and suddenly I thought she was a slut. I couldn’t let my daughter do some of the things she did. She told people very private things about me, which I thought was a terrible betrayal. Only when she had senile dementia did she start to become nice to me, and it seemed so unfair.”
Nevertheless, Zita Magda was a formidable woman who kept her only child alive through years of dodging and diving, refusing to sew a yellow star on her own or her daughter’s clothing.
“I had to often hide for hours on end while my mother was out at work, and she always made it seem like a game.”
Zita Magda survived through her many talents — as a nurse, a dancing teacher and a resettlement worker for the UN. Eventually, she followed her daughter to Sussex and founded a specialist college for dyslexic children.
Whatever her bitterness about her mother, Dorit is proud of herself for refusing to be held back by the traumas of her past. “So many Holocaust survivors stay victims for the rest of their lives, and I’m very sad for them because we only have one life, and living it and being successful is the best revenge.”
She kept quiet about her wartime experiences for a long time, until watching her five grandchildren leave food on their plates made her feel bound to speak out.
“I didn’t want to bombard them about my past, but it would upset me. I told them: ‘When I was your age I would have licked the plate; I didn’t taste chicken till I was 13 years old.’ And little by little we started talking.”
Five years ago, her daughter and granddaughter insisted on taking her back to Budapest, which was a bitter-sweet experience.
“I never got over being spat at there because I looked Jewish and even now there is antisemitism in Hungary. I didn’t want to go, but curiosity killed the cat and I went back to the house where for nine months I had hidden in the cellar.”
She relived the awful sight of those times of a Jewish girl from the building opposite leaping to her death from a high floor rather than be captured by the SS during a raid.
“The tiles in that courtyard were still the precise shade of mustard yellow I had remembered — and I couldn’t make myself go down into the cellar. I couldn’t speak for three or four hours after that visit — but it was the catalyst for the book; I came back and started writing.”
That cathartic experience comes with a high price, she admits. “Every day for me is Holocaust Remembrance Day with scenes I can’t forget, and I am sometimes swept by melancholy. But I try to control it, otherwise the life that has been given to me would be a waste. I try to wake up every morning and say: ‘It’s a beautiful day.’”
Dorit Oliver-Wolff is speaking at JW3 on February 28 as part of Jewish Book Week.
‘From Yellow Star to Pop Star’ is published by RedDoor Publishing.