Journalist Sarah Wildman grew up hearing that her charismatic grandfather Karl had pulled off a perfect escape from Vienna in 1938, six months after Nazi Germany annexed Austria. Karl, then 26, got out in the nick of time, fleeing to the United States with his mother, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew – “everyone,” Wildman had always believed. But after her grandfather’s death, she came upon a cache of devastating letters hidden in his files. One, written from Vienna in June 1941 and addressed to Karl’s mother, read, “It is directly a story from heaven, how you left me here, sick.... You don’t think about asking us if we are still alive.... I had to sell everything I have so that I can survive.... I am here with my family and I have no clue and I am completely helpless.” Evidently, not “everyone” had made it out.
Books about the Holocaust have continued to proliferate in recent decades: historical studies that struggle to grasp its entire, un-graspable scope or to elucidate just a piece of it; novels; philosophical explorations; and survivors’ memoirs. Eventually, too, came memoirs from the children of survivors, showing what a dark, heavy shadow had been cast over the next generation. Wildman’s riveting book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind is in part a descendant’s memoir, but it is also, like Daniel Mendelsohn’s "The Lost," a detective story, as Wildman becomes obsessed with uncovering the fate of one particular letter writer, Valy Scheftel, who, Wildman’s American-born grandmother tells the author, was “your grandfather’s true love.”
Karl and Valy attended medical school together at the University of Vienna; Wildman learns from the few remaining people who knew them that Valy loved Karl wildly and unrequitedly for a time until Karl at last reciprocated her feelings. When Karl emigrated to America, Valy, an only child raised by a single mother in the Czech town of Troppau, returned home to her mother, most likely because she was unwilling to leave her behind.
"Paper Love" originated as a five-part series in Slate, but the book is different in both scale and tone. Wildman, through a combination of dogged research – she traveled to Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and beyond – and luck, was able to learn more about Valy after the series’ publication. And the book is more personal than the series, both because here Wildman explores her complicated feelings about her family history and because she quotes liberally from the dozens of tender and wrenching letters Valy wrote to Karl.
Most of those letters came from Berlin, where Valy lived with her mother after leaving Troppau. They pulse with desperation, at first simply to see Karl again: in October 1939, she writes, “how much I would love to be with you again. And it seems to be absolutely impossible that we will see each other again soon, so hopelessly long, that I am sometimes completely desperate and feel that I cannot take it, although, speaking from a purely external viewpoint, I am, relatively speaking, well off.”
Increasingly, though, as more and more of Germany’s Jews are ominously deported “east,” never to be heard from again, while those who remain are subjected to mounting persecution and deprivation, her focus is survival. “Darling, I have to ask you urgently to get me a visa for Cuba; and, if at all possible, also for my mother,” she implores in one of her final letters, though by then all roads out of the Reich have been cut off. (The letters stop after the entry of the United States into the war brings communication with Germany to a halt.)
It is unsettling that many of Valy’s letters plaintively ask Karl why he hasn’t written to her. (Wildman also finds a reproachful note from Valy’s uncle, who made it to the United States, pushing Karl to contact her: “It is difficult to imagine that it is exactly only your letters that do get lost....“) In seeking to understand a silence that will strike readers as cruel, Wildman pierces another hole in her family’s mythology, discovering that her grandfather did not become a successful physician fresh off the boat but instead subsisted on welfare from a Jewish aid organization. Karl was poor in Vienna, and his early years in America were marked by struggle. The sums mentioned in the letters – $300 for passage to Chile, $1,400 to Cuba – were beyond prohibitive, and Wildman speculates that guilt over his impotence might have caused Karl to turn away.
The parts of "Paper Love" focused on the past are heartrending — we of course read Valy’s letters cursed with hindsight, so that when she feels things can’t get much worse, we have the terrible knowledge that they will. As with other Holocaust memoirs, the portrayal of Valy, through not only the letters but the book’s many photographs as well, gives a human face to the millions lost. More pressingly, the questions Wildman raises about the present are significant – about history and memory, about how, if stories of the Holocaust feel distant and “totally unfathomable” to someone like her, who’s known many survivors, “what would they feel like to those who came after?”
The angry and despairing letter quoted in the introduction was from Karl’s half-brother, Manele, and Wildman learns when and where he and his wife died. “My grandfather probably never knew exactly what happened to his half-brother and his wife,” Wildman writes. “But I do: in the last few years, all of the Gestapo files of Vienna have been scanned and placed online.” We know more now, yet we have forgotten much. German Jews were forced to cram into crowded Judenhäuser before being sent to the concentration camps, but when Wildman visits the Judenhaus where Valy lived, she meets a man who’s lived there for nearly three decades and who’s certain she must be mistaken.
If Wildman’s grandmother had had her way, this story too would have been forgotten: Before her death she offhandedly revealed that she had destroyed all of Karl’s personal correspondence, surely, Wildman guesses, “to preserve the myth of the spotless escape.” Karl, it seems, had deliberately separated out and concealed the letters from Valy and others he was powerless to help; still, he kept them. Only by discovering those letters was the author able to learn something her grandfather, despite building a happy life, perhaps couldn’t bring himself to forget: that five “was an enormous number, and, at the same time, not many at all.”