My mother and her sister were children of my grandfather’s second family (actually so was their mother-a child of second chances of my maternal great grandfather). My grandfather’s first family was separated from him by wartime evacuation and lost in the bombs of the Holocaust. My grandparents met far away from their homes in Central Asia and then came back to Ukraine together to build a life and a family. As a child and really to this day, my grandparents’ marriage and my eventual resulting existence always struck me as strange happenstance. After all, for it to have happened, multiple people quite literally had to die: at the very least my grandfather’s first wife and my grandmother’s fiancé. This accident of fate (if one can so casually call the murder of millions an accident) has always struck a cord in my mind. I was always that child who asked Why and this was the ultimate Why for which there can be no answer.
When I picked up Sarah Wildman’s “Paper Love” at my local library a month ago, I had no inkling that reading it would bring up these existential thoughts yet again. Initially I found the idea behind the book cute: a veteran Jewish female journalist seeks the truth about what had happened to the girl her beloved grandfather left behind when he escaped Austria in 1938. It seemed like a touching human interest story but I didn’t really anticipate it capturing me. And yet, Wildman absolutely did that. Through exhaustive research, countless interviews, multiple trips that took her all over the world, and full disclosure of her grandfather Karl’s letter archive (the very archive that set her on the journey of discovery), Wildman did the one thing that is often so very lacking in personal accounts of the Holocaust. She gave a real voice to the story of Valerie Scheftel, the girlfriend her grandfather left back in Vienna. Valy’s voice is resonant with her continued yet frustrated love even as her letters become urgent and alarmingly desperate letters as 1938 turns into 1939 and a visa out of hell for herself and a reunion with Karl isn’t forthcoming. Though Valy’s own words do not venture into specifics of her every day struggles, it’s Wildman’s own research illuminates exactly how quickly life for Jews becomes unbearable. As Valy’s letters slip into early 1940 and 1941, Jews in Nazi controlled territories go from being segregated to being starved to being robbed to being physically isolated and eventually deported to their deaths and forgetting.
I don’t think Wildman sought to answer the same kind of Why that I’ve had flowing through my mind from my early years. Her Why was really more of a What and How: both a way to understand the grandfather she loved and to find out what he had left behind on the path to becoming her grandfather. Finding out what happened to Valy and to other people from his circle: both relations and friends, instead presented Wildman with an alternate horror movie version of what could have been. And yet the knowledge of it all, only strengthened her resolve to keep going. This book is the result of that resolve to know, no matter what lay in the past.
I won’t tell you what happened to Valy because I want to urge my followers to delve into her story on their own. I do want to share my overall takeaway from this heartbreaking story. It’s imperative that we do not forget. Yet ultimately what I enjoyed most about Wildman’s book is the very specifics of the nightmare Valy and the authors of the other family archive letters that help create a firmer background of the times. It’s easy to decide that this happened too long ago and it isn’t that important anyway. And yet…..this nightmare, this systematic victimization and murder in every sense of the word, had happened within living memory of many. Though survivors are very elderly now, and infirm, their stories of survival, and the stories of the loved ones that didn’t, are what needs to form the resolve of a better future. These people, the disabled, the gays, the Roma and the Jews, were brutalized, stripped of their very humanity and disappeared.It’s because of stories like Wildman’s, that their lives must amount to more than a number among millions, their suffering must be more than a footnote, and their humanity must be acknowledged and their voices found and heard.