One of the most important lessons Dorit Oliver-Wolff has learnt in her 83 years – as a Holocaust survivor, international pop star, wife and mother – is that everybody needs a partner. Together, she and her mother cheated death when the Nazis wiped out the rest of her family; then she shared her life with Frank, her husband of almost six decades. So when he died from pancreatic cancer – after asking for “one more kiss” – last year, she knew she would date again.
“I’m not looking to replace Frank,” says Oliver-Wolff in tonight’s First Dates Hotel, the residential spin-off of the beloved Channel 4 dating show, set in southwestern Italy. “I’m looking for someone because I’m still alive.”
Today, Oliver-Wolff is bustling around her seaside Eastbourne flat, making coffee and passing keepsakes to me as she rattles through her story, her zest for life undimmed. “It’s so important as you get older to still have hopes,” she says, sporting brightly coloured sandals, a spotted silk scarf and a scarlet-lipstick smile. But her jeans slip down because of the weight she has lost in the months since Frank passed away, and she often catches herself talking to no one. “It’s not that I am looking to elope to Gretna Green, but when you lose a lifetime partner, who happens to be your best friend as well, there is a big vacuum.”
The contours of Oliver-Wolff’s life show in the antique knick knacks and family photos that line the walls and cabinets of her home: decades of collecting after a childhood with nothing. On the coffee table, her latest album, a compilation of 24 songs, rests on top of a 2015 memoir, From Yellow Star to Pop Star: How one young girl survived the Holocaust and became a singing sensation.
“My story is one of inspiration, success and survival,” she reflects. “I had a very solitary, almost feral upbringing. Even now when I wake up, I feel so grateful that I can get up by myself, brush my teeth, eat whatever I like for breakfast, and be independent. Freedom is the biggest gift.”
Oliver-Wolff was born into a comfortable family in Novi Sad, Serbia (then Yugoslavia), a few years before the outbreak of the Second World War. Aged four, she danced for King Peter II of Yugoslavia; at five she started singing. Then the Nazis occupied Serbia and ordered its Jewish population to wear the yellow Star of David. Oliver-Wolff’s mother, Zita Magda, refused and the pair fled to the Hungarian capital of Budapest, leaving her father, an architect and jazz pianist, behind.
For most of the war, the pair disguised themselves as a Red Cross nurse and patient. They hid in cellars and bombed-out buildings. Food came from dumpsters and they “saw a spy in everybody”. Some days, when Zita Magda went to work at the hospital, she would hide Oliver-Wolff within the bedspread. Oliver-Wolff was twice picked up by the Nazis: once when their landlady revealed her to be “a stinking little Jew who is hiding” – “How could anybody do that?” – then, when she was separated from her mother and sent to a concentration camp, but managed to escape. She doesn’t remember how; some memories have completely vanished.
Music kept Oliver-Wolff alive. “I created a little cocoon around myself [with song]. When I was hungry or afraid, I was singing,” she says. “There were not many songs I knew, so some of them I invented,” spinning stories from the small patch of sky she could glimpse from their cellar hideout.
The Holocaust devastated Oliver-Wolff’s childhood and family. On returning to Novi Sad, aged nine, she and her mother discovered that all of their relatives had been murdered. “My father was taken to a forced labour camp,” she says. “He died on the spot where he was working. He was about 30; he didn’t have a life.”
After years in hiding, Oliver-Wolff weighed three and-a-half stone, had lost all of her hair and was too weak with pleurisy to stand. “I looked like a skeleton,” she says. Doctors gave her six months to live, but she was determined to survive. “All I ever wanted was to sing, and if you really, really want something, you never give up.”
By her teens, Oliver-Wolff was singing on stage at a theatre in Istanbul and later moved to Germany with Zita Magda, where, in 1962, she was voted “the third best jazz singer in Europe” (she can’t remember by whom). Around this time, she met Frank, an Englishman who had no idea she was a famous singer and immediately bonded with her daughter, Desi, now 58, from her short-lived first marriage.
They moved to England in 1963 and married in Croydon. A year later, their son Mark, now 54, was born. Oliver-Wolff wanted to move on with her life, and give her children everything she had missed. She enjoyed buttered crumpets for breakfast and visits to the supermarket, where she could buy whatever she wanted. But she was haunted by a constant feeling of persecution. “When you have never had a childhood, you spend your lifetime compensating,” she says. “I compensated by being on stage and having an audience.”
She rarely spoke of the Holocaust, but the past was always with her. “It’s not that you sit there and want to remember,” she says. “You simply cannot forget.” There is a poetry to Oliver-Wolff’s words, which she picks carefully as she retraces the stages of her life. She trails off when she remembers her only trip back to Budapest, for her 75th birthday with her daughter and granddaughter.
She was in two minds about returning – “part of me wanted to turn around and fly back to England” – and, rooted to the yellow mosaic tiles in the courtyard above the cellar where she spent the final nine months of the war, her childhood flashed before her eyes. “How often did I dream of getting out of there?” she says. “Now I was on the other side of the tiny little window a lifetime later… As soon as I got back [to England], I started to write my memoirs.”
Once Oliver-Wolff found the voice to tell her story, she started speaking publicly at events across the country. “So long as there’s breath in my body, I want to give talks to as many people as possible,” she says. “Especially to the young, who have to learn that the Holocaust must not be repeated – and that bystanders are just as guilty as those who pull the trigger.” She adds, “And yet, it is happening again, isn’t it? It’s on our doorstep… there’s an undercurrent.”
Oliver-Wolff is “disgusted” at rise of antisemitic abuse in the UK. When she first came to Britain, she felt how “welcoming and cosmopolitan” it was: “I love living here, this is my home, but it upsets me that the Jewish community is starting to feel like it has to be afraid to walk down the street,” she says.
“If [Jeremy Corbyn] becomes prime minister, all the Jews are going to have to leave.”
As for her First Dates match with historian and writer, John, she can’t reveal how it went. “It would be wonderful if John was ‘the person’ – but if not,” she teases, with a smile, “[readers] know where to contact me.”
First Dates Hotel continues on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm