For Sarah Wildman, her grandfather Karl Wildman’s escape from Europe at the outset of World War II was her family’s foundational myth. A newly minted medical school graduate and a Jew, Karl left Austria for the United States six months after the Anschluss — the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938.
Sarah writes that “[t]he story of that escape — and the way I understood it — shaped my childhood imaginings, my nightmares, my dreams. The reality of that escape shaped [my grandfather’s] world view.” Karl was hailed as the family hero who brought his mother, sister, brother-in-law, and small nephew to America, not only saving them from virulent anti-Semitism, but from the Holocaust itself.
But Wildman was introduced to another facet of her family saga through her discovery of a trove of letters tucked into a small carton in her parents’ attic after her grandfather’s death labeled “Correspondence: Patients A-G.” The legendary escape from Vienna, coupled with Karl’s American success story of starting over again as a doctor in Pittsfield, was eclipsed by his correspondence with Valerie Scheftel, or as she was known, “Valy.’’ Valy and Karl were classmates at the University of Vienna’s medical school, and according to Wildman’s grandmother, Valy was “[y]our grandfather’s true love.”
Valy’s three-year war correspondence with Karl and the subsequent search to definitively learn her fate form the beating heart of “Paper Love.” The letters create an intimate portrayal of a Jewish woman desperate to flee Nazi Germany. They also open a window onto a Holocaust history in which Karl, a young struggling immigrant doctor, was unable to afford a visa to Cuba or Chile for Valy. But above all, Valy’s missives are love letters. As Wildman writes, “I show these letters to friends in Vienna and Berlin. One friend tells me they are too personal to translate.”
The intimacy of Valy’s letters — “You do know that I consider myself as belonging to you wholly and entirely and that I feel that I am bound to you’’ — suffuses Wildman’s chronicle. Valy’s ardent pleading — “Darling I have to ask you urgently to get me a visa for Cuba . . . Please get together all your and our friends. I hope they are not going to be stingy with their money’’ — reaches a crescendo in 1941. “It is this year,” writes Wildman, “that Valy both gives up on Karl and clings to him.” Less than two years later Valy weds Hans Fabisch, 10 years her junior, in Berlin. The two are deported to Auschwitz the day before they had planned to go underground and are never heard from again.
In 2004 Sarah Wildman sets out for Vienna on a journalism fellowship and the spirits of Karl and Valy haunt her. Four years later and pregnant with her first child, she goes to Berlin — the place where Valy likely suffered untold deprivation and humiliation as a Jew. In Germany, Wildman tries to reconcile Valy’s fate with Nazi records that are housed among the recently opened archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross — the International Tracing Service.
At the tracing service Wildman learns, much to her surprise, that she was not the first person to look for Valy. According to records, someone else had searched for Valy in the 1950s. That inquiry leads Wildman on an odyssey from Valy’s birthplace in Czechoslovakia to a flat in London where she sifts through correspondence between Hans and his sister Ilse, who had escaped to London. There, wading through all of this documentation, Wildman fills some important gaps in her understanding of the lives of Valy and Hans.
At the outset of Wildman’s carefully packed narrative she tells her readers that her grandfather was “entirely absorbed in the idea of the Jew in History and where he himself fit into that.” In telling Valy’s story, Wildman also looks for her place in Jewish history by “investigating the narratives at the edges, stories that asked questions of what happened to regular people, the minor stories, the warp and weave of tragedy.’’
Judy Bolton-Fasman can be reached at www.thejudychronicles.com.