As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offenses against Germany during World War II, they began to liberate concentration camp prisoners. In the final months of the war, Nazi guards moved camp inmates by train or on grueling forced marches, known as death marches, in an attempt to prevent their liberation. Leo Wolf, who at 23 had already spent five years in Auschwitz and Dachau, barely survived one of those marches. “The Americans liberated us at the end of the march, May 7 or 8, 1945,” Leo says. “They picked me up and took me to a hospital. I weighed 66 pounds. I’d lost both parents and two sisters. Out of my entire family, I was the only survivor.”
After the war, Wolf moved to St. Louis with his wife, Sara, whose mother had perished at Auschwitz. Sara, along with two sisters and a cousin, had been imprisoned at both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. “We stayed together—that’s how we survived,” Sara recalls of her time in the camps. “If one of my sisters or my cousin got sick, the others would lift her up and help her walk. Luckily, we found my brother when the war was over.”
The Wolfs, who’d known each other since childhood, raised three sons here. Leo worked his way up from cook to proprietor of a small restaurant, to owner of L. Wolf Co., a construction business in Granite City, Ill. It was a good life, but the past was ever-present. “I refused to talk about the war for a long time, even to my own children,” says Sara. “I just couldn’t do it. But Leo wanted everyone to know what had gone on during those terrible days, so it couldn’t be thrown away in a corner and forgotten.”
In 1995, after many years of effort, the Wolfs helped establish the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC). The HMLC, a department of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, has a straightforward mission: To educate St. Louisans about the history and consequences of the Holocaust in the hope of preventing such events from happening again. Visitors to the museum can view a chronological history of the Holocaust with personal accounts of survivors who settled in St. Louis. Photographs (including one of Leo taken during the death march), artifacts and audiovisual displays offer glimpses of pre-war Jewish life in Europe, the rise and spread of Nazism, and post-war events such as the Nuremberg trials and Jewish life after the Holocaust.
The HMLC, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary in May, also sponsors exhibits, lectures, a film series and teacher-training workshops. Other features include a comprehensive video library with more than 500 titles as well as an oral history project with more than 150 testimonies so far. It’s the museum’s educational function that means the most to the Wolfs.
“We haven’t learned the lesson of history at all, not yet,” Leo says. “We pray that one of these days, things will change and there will be no more war. So many schoolchildren visit the museum and are moved by what they see and hear. Who knows? Maybe one of them will grow up to be a great peacemaker.”