Dorit Oliver-Wolff tells her remarkable story of dancing, persecution and pop stardom
PUBLISHED: 14:43 19 January 2017 | UPDATED: 14:43 19 January 2017
As we remember the darkest period of European history on Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January), Eastbourne’s Dorit Oliver-Wolff tells Jenny Mark-Bell her remarkable story: from dancing in the Yugoslavian Royal Court, through persecution and poverty, to pop stardom
Dorit Oliver-Wolff’s Eastbourne home is full of things. Ornaments; press cuttings; old publicity photographs… “My children say I’m a hoarder,” she says. “But, you see, when you have had nothing you like to have things around you.”
Few people have experienced such sweeping highs and devastating lows. Persecuted by the Nazis and repeatedly betrayed by their collaborators as a child, she overcame the displacement and confusion of the post-war period to become a successful and much-feted pop star in – what bitter irony! – Germany.
As she explains in her memoirs, an extract of which appeared in last month’s issue of Sussex Life, 81-year-old Dorit was six years old when she found out she was Jewish: a woman spat at her and told her so. Before Europe began to fold in on itself, little Dorit had led a charmed, if slightly unconventional childhood full of music in Yugoslavia. Her parents were separated and her mother was a dance teacher at the Royal Court – and Dorit naturally spent a lot of time there with her. At just four years old she performed for the future king of Yugoslavia.
One weekend a few months after that performance, the music stopped; and with it Dorit’s childhood. When Belgrade was carpet-bombed in 1941 she and her mother Zita fled to Hungary with nothing but the torn clothes on their back. Thus they began their flight around a Nazi-occupied country plagued with anti-Semitism, suspicion and poverty.
From place to place they had to create new identities so they couldn’t be traced – Dorit’s mother had the perfect cover as a Red Cross nurse but Dorit had to hide, often singing under her breath to pass the time. “Every day we had to rehearse our story and my mum made a game out of it, everything was a game. Our best game was hide and seek. I would hide, we would count and I would be still counting hours later. I would stay there for hours.
“You don’t really know who to believe, you don’t know who really likes you or why they like you, what they want out of you. At one time we had a furnished room and I would hide there or at [my mother’s] hospital. There was this little old lady there and she always used to say to me ‘You have such beautiful green eyes and lovely dark hair – what a well-behaved little girl you are!’ She would look at my paintings, my drawings, and asked me what I wanted to do when I was a big girl. She would give me biscuits and she was lovely. One day the door was kicked in by two men in uniform and this lovely little lady, who was my friend, shouted, ‘This is the stinking little Jew who is hiding in my flat.’ How could any human being do that?”
Despite such harrowing stories Dorit’s book – and indeed her conversation – is not short on humour. Occasionally her language turns the air blue. She has all the straightforwardness and chutzpah we see in the little girl in the book – who escaped from a nunnery and argued successfully with a German officer for her mother’s release. “Do you know, I can see that now. I can sit here and remember he had very straight black hair with some cream in it or something. Pale blue eyes. They pushed my mum onto a chair and the door had a duvet on it: I didn’t know it was soundproofed. She had a light shining on her. For me she was everything, right? And she was so frightened, I could feel it. This man, he never looked up, he kept on writing. I don’t know what happened to me but I got up, went behind the desk and pointed at a photograph – ‘Are these your children?’ Then he looked at me, straight into me, and said ‘Yes. They must be about the same age as you’.” Remarkably he set free both Dorit and her mother – who was active in the underground resistance.
I ask her if she feels like the same person she was then. “When my husband used to come with me to my lectures, he used to cry. He said ‘You stand there, you’re my wife and I love you. But I’m thinking about that little child, and then to think that little child is you…’
“What you asked is very poignant, because it changes from time. Sometimes I think about that little girl and I have amazing admiration for her because I think, could I have done it? And then I think, ‘You stupid cow, of course you could have: it was you!”
After the war Dorit and her mother, now reunited with her grandmother, went back to Yugoslavia, to the home of Dorit’s paternal grandfather. They discovered that the wealthy solicitor had been forced to watch the murder of his adolescent sons and that his mind had slipped from its moorings as a result. With the family gone, the neighbours had helped themselves to the contents of the villa – only for the formidable Zita to go from house to house demanding their return.
At that point Dorit’s lungs were scarred from pneumonia and pleurisy and doctors gave her months to live. She was starving and her hair had fallen out.
It was music that saved her. Once the Steinway grand piano had been rescued from the neighbour who had been ‘saving’ it for the family, she began to play – just one finger at first. And always singing, even in her weakened state. One day she had a surprise. “I was singing and playing and it must have sounded like a total cacophony, but suddenly people were clapping. I looked out of the window and there were about half a dozen people watching me. They all knew that I came back and they knew who my family was, that they all got killed, so perhaps it was curiosity and pity. Or perhaps it was bad conscience. After that they would leave me an egg [on the doorstep], or a little cup of sugar or flour, because they knew I was starved.”
Zita started a ballet school in Novi Sad and Dorit won a scholarship to the Music Academy of Montenegro where she received her formal training. But Zita felt that life in a communist country was swapping frying pan for fire, and they emigrated to Israel in 1948. Dorit was 12 and “It was one of the most elating, happy moments of my life. It was the first time I had seen an orange and they were just throwing oranges at us. It was a dream to be free, and a dream to be amongst other Jewish people.”
But soon the dream was over: Zita and her new German husband had itchy feet. Four years after she’d docked in Haifa, Dorit was living a double life: schoolgirl by day, dancer by night. The small family had moved to Turkey but when she turned 15, Dorit had a problem: she had no passport of her own and could no longer travel on her mother’s. She was deported. After a year in limbo she returned to Istanbul, joined her mother’s dance troupe and was granted an artist’s visa. Music had saved the day again. Still only 17, Dorit danced by night and went to school during the day, eventually earning a solo spot as a singer and travelling with the troupe all over the Middle East – meeting some colourful characters along the way.
Eventually, Dorit settled in Hamburg and found fame, becoming one of the top 10 recording artists in Germany with records such as Du bist gut zur mir and Oh yes, das ist musik. One evening, she was booked for a concert in Bremer-Hafen – the annual dinner dance for the German Air Force. Looking out on the sea of uniforms, medals glinting on lapels, she knew at once what her final song should be: Hava Nagila, a Hebrew song of rejoicing. And as she sang to those people, whose parents and grandparents were the instruments of her childhood’s destruction, they stood and clapped along.
Dorit came to Eastbourne in 1971 and reinvented herself: by then a wife to Frank and a mother of two, she became well-known in the town as the proprietor of a high-end clothes shop, and then as co-owner of an antiques shop with Frank. But she never forgot her history and, after a family trip to Hungary, she knew she needed to write about it. She describes herself as a survivor, not a victim. “But the victim is still there, inside.”
She continues to tell her story – through her book (published last year), and in speaking engagements, including those in schools. And the current political climate, the rise in far-right discourse, makes her more determined than ever. “I try to explain to them that we are all the same and everybody has got the right to live, regardless of colour, creed and religion. Nobody chooses which family to be born into. I didn’t ask for it but I am here and I had to make the best of it. What I deplore more than anything is the bystanders [who do nothing]. If you see something like that, you can stop it.”
This month – 27 January – marks Holocaust Memorial Day. Dorit will be speaking at a memorial service on Thursday 26 January in Eastbourne Town Hall.
She intends to sing Hava Nagila once more, conveying the message of triumph and optimism through its lyrics, which translate:
“Awake my brothers, awake, my brothers
With a happy heart.”