Survival in Paradise: Sketches From a Refugee Life in Curaçao is a funny, moving memoir of growing up in the Caribbean West Indies, in the aftermath of World War Two. The narrative covers Manfred’s childhood and adolescent years in Suriname and Curacao between 1942 to 1951, focusing on his development between the ages of eight and seventeen. In doing so, it renders through specific moments the long, sad shadow cast by the war over the refugees. In Curacao, the Wolf family’s life was shaped by three occasionally clashing cultures: colonial Dutch, native Curaçaoan, and, of course, the refugee culture itself. The family found itself surrounded by a joyous tropical culture, one to which, as a boy, Manfred yearned to belong. Meanwhile, his parents, each in their own way, brooded about the horrors so recently experienced and never fully left behind.
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Survival in Paradise is a superbly written and very personal and moving account of the life of a young man. First, at age 7, there is the flight from the Nazis, from country to country through Europe and then by ship to Suriname and eventually, to the Dutch colony of Curaçao. In that hot and steamy environment, in sharp contrast to the North Sea fog of Holland, where he had happy memories of his early years, Manfred Wolf must then come to terms with yet another strange culture, while a refugee still grappling with his international Jewish roots. This very reflective and intimate account of his entry into manhood, ending with his coming to Brandeis University in the United States, is focused much on his inner thoughts, aspirations, reactions to his past, current ... and future ... lives. In that way it is different than many autobiographies/memoirs, which can be more descriptive of events, actions, deeds, etc., but short on the internal process of reflection, evaluation, and simply feeling. There is not always a smooth flow between chapters, but that is largely an artifact of the pieces being written at different times and each addressing a particular theme. That is, the times he is describing are not necessarily in chronological order, nor were they intended to be. And of course there is some repetition. But this is not a drawback and did not detract from my appreciation of what I was reading. For me, at least, who did not experience first hand the struggles and challenges of keeping one step ahead of Hitler's spreading web, it was very instructive and does convey the profound effect such experiences had on everyone..., not just the parents trying to save their families, but the kids themselves, and how there are some things that one never gets over. Wolf conveys a vivid and insightful understanding of the people in his life --- his parents (e.g., his father emerges as someone chronically depressed, all of the other stresses and struggles in his life notwithstanding) and several older relatives as well as many friends and acquaintances. By skillfully reconstructing dialog, the people and events come alive so as to add another dimension to the many episodes he describes. Curiously, he says relatively little about his brother, older by three years, or his relationship with him. I would have expected that the harrowing experiences of the flight from Europe might have affected his brother even more profoundly that they did the author and that he might have been a greater influence on his life than is apparent from the book. In any case, the youthful Manny revealed in the pages of Survival is quite consistent with the Manfred I have come to know over the past 25 or so years. I strongly recommend Survival in Paradise to anyone interested in appreciating the very important personal dimensions of a critical period in our history.