Paulette Dorflaufer remembers being hidden in an orphanage in her native France during the Holocaust. She remembers heading to the dark basement whenever the Gestapo came.
“We could hear them walking overhead. And we had to be very quiet,” she told a visitor at her Livingston home. “We couldn’t whisper or sneeze or breathe.”
She remembers sleeping four or six to a room and having so little to eat that she had to hold onto her food or another child would take it.
She also remembers her amazement on traveling to the United States to meet Harry and Ruth Wolfe of South Orange, who had adopted her. She and a chaperone traveled on the Queen Elizabeth to meet her new parents in America. She remembers arriving at her new home in South Orange, where she had her own bedroom.
“To me, it looked like a castle,” she said.
On a recent afternoon, just after returning home from her work as a crossing guard, she greets a visitor and sits at her dining room table. She offers sweets and tea and settles into her own castle, trinkets and treasures adorning every space. She has a soothing manner and kind voice, and is at ease sharing her story of pain and loss, discovery and familial love. As she tells it, each detail is like a revelation, as if she is discovering who she is all over again.
Dorflaufer was born Paulette Reine Korssia on May 8, 1943, in Marseille, the 10th child of Yaya and Tamar Korssia. Her parents, first cousins, had come to Marseille from their native Algeria in 1937 with six children (one had died before they moved).
As the Gestapo closed in on her family, killing her father, mother, and five of her siblings while the others fled into hiding or exile, her grown sister Fortune managed to place Paulette, along with her own daughter, Rosette, and another sister, Jacqueline, in a Catholic orphanage where she knew the nuns would keep them safe from the Nazis. Fortune later escaped to Algiers.
After the war, Paulette, at five, was adopted by Ruth and Harry Wolfe. The couple, who belonged to Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, had a son, Norman, who was in college; their 11-year-old daughter had just died after being hit by a car in front of their home. They decided to adopt a child, and, as Dorflaufer tells it, her mother, then 46, could not adopt in the United States, so she sent an agent to the orphanages in France. He brought back photos and descriptions, and she selected Paulette.
Dorflaufer became Paulette Reine Wolfe. Although she does remember the orphanage and her adoption, she did not remember her siblings, Marseille, her mother, or even her family name. In fact, she said, “Once I found a photo of myself, and it had the letter K on the back. The rest of the word was erased, but I could make out the K. I had no idea what it meant.”
She spoke no English when she arrived in the United States, but she eventually forgot how to speak French.
She grew up, married, and had three children with her husband, Barry.
It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that Dorflaufer discovered she had biological siblings still living in France. Her father took her to the French embassy in New York, where she learned her last name had been Korssia and that her birthplace was Marseille.
She would later discover that her sister Fortune had been trying unsuccessfully to find her, finally giving up the search in 1969.
In 1971, Paulette, then 28, decided to piece together the threads of her life and seek other Korssias still in France. She and Barry traveled to France to meet the members of her extended family whom she managed to find, including her sister Fortune and daughter Rosette; her sister Jacqueline, who had survived in the orphanage; and her brother Jacques, who had been sheltered by a family in Marseille. She landed in France on Feb. 9, the same day she had left the country so many years before. She became close with long-lost family members, particularly Jacques, even though she never learned to speak French.
Bringing families together
Along the way, Dorflaufer collected the documents that serve as the evidence of the story of her life. They range from a photo of her as an infant with her mother and four other siblings, to the documents showing the transports that carried her parents and siblings to their deaths.
She recently put these together with her own narrative and photos into a scrapbook, copies of which have been accepted into the libraries of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, the Shoah Memorial in Paris, and Yad Vashem in Israel.
The documents and her siblings’ memories, along with some gaps filled in by friends, acquaintances, and relatives, reveal that the Gestapo arrested her father in Marseille, and that in March 1943 he was gassed at Sobibor. They explain that her mother and five of her children were taken to the Drancy transit camp in June 1944, and then put on the last train from Drancy to Auschwitz. The train also carried the pellets of gas that would be used to murder them on Aug. 6, 1944.
The documents also reflect the circumstances surrounding the separation of Dorflaufer from her surviving siblings when she was adopted to the United States.
Since finding them, Dorflaufer has stayed in touch with her siblings and other relatives; Jacques died 15 years ago, Fortune, two years ago. Jacqueline, now 82, lives in Israel. She managed to bring her two families, French and American, together, though it was not always easy. When she went to Paris for the first time, she couldn’t tell her mother. “But she knew I went,” said Dorflaufer, “and she said, ‘So are you going to move to France now?’ I had to reassure her that I would never never leave her.”
And she didn’t; in fact, her mother lived with Dorflaufer at the end of her life. And when her newfound French siblings came to visit, her mother overcame her own difficult emotions to take the whole group out for dinner. Even today, Dorflaufer’s bedroom is full of photos of members of her entire extended family — Korssia and Wolfe.
And that photo of Dorflaufer with her mother and siblings hangs not only in her bedroom — along with photos of her and the siblings who survived — but also in the Shoah Memorial in Paris, where the names of each of her family members murdered in the Holocaust is inscribed on a marble wall.