NEW YORK (JTA) — As the last generation of Holocaust survivors ages and dies, efforts to capture their final, untold stories have abounded. But in her new book “Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind,” Sarah Wildman has turned instead to the future, asking what it means to bear witness in a world without Holocaust survivors.
“Paper Love” chronicles the author’s long and labyrinthine search for the fate of the woman whose black-and-white photos she finds amid her late grandfather Karl’s belongings. Wildman knew only the woman’s name, Valy, scrawled across the back of the photos, and that her grandmother bitterly called the mysterious dark-haired woman “your grandfather’s true love.”
It is only after her grandmother dies that Wildman discovers a trove of letters that her grandfather, a dashing physician who fled Vienna in 1938 for the United States, kept hidden and mislabeled.
“Correspondence: Patients A-G” reads the carton containing Valy’s letters, written in German from war-torn Berlin, as well as angry correspondences from extended family members who would never make it out of Hitler’s Europe.
Wildman’s hunt for Valy’s story takes her to far-flung cities, tiny villages and concentration camps throughout Europe, as well as to Ann Arbor, Mich., searching for people who may have known Valy, for documents that might refer to her, for experts who might shed light on her fate. She combs the archives for information and walks the streets of Vienna and Berlin in search of scraps of information about Valy’s life.
But “Paper Love” branches out at every turn — enfolding into its net more historical details, more stories, more locations, more human lives that vanished into World War II, never to be heard of again until now.
The book weaves together the historical with the intensely personal, redefining what counts as appropriate archival material and elevating intimate aspects from Valy’s life, and Wildman’s own, to new importance.
In the six years it took to complete “Paper Love,” Wildman, a journalist, gave birth to two daughters. The transition into new motherhood accompanied the one from consumer of Holocaust history to producer of it.
It’s a transition that took place in the shadow of loss — specifically the death of her grandparents, and also the gradual loss of the last generation of survivors.
“It’s been a very poignant thing for me that my kids won’t know them,” Wildman told JTA over the phone, her breast pump whirring in the background. “I am very much thinking of what comes next, in part because my children won’t have the opportunity of that visceral connection of listening to the story from the source.”
But “Paper Love” is revolutionary precisely because it could not have been written during the lifetime of Wildman’s grandfather.
“He never told us about the letters,” Wildman said, by way of explanation, “and my grandmother wouldn’t have been too pleased.”
Faced with the lack of stories “from the source” that her daughters’ generation encounters, Wildman chose to create something that could exist only in a world without Karl. It’s the kind of art bound to grow in the coming, post-survivor era — now that Wildman is paving the way.
Equal parts history, detective story, memoir and romance, Wildman’s book provides an absorbing account of what it was like to live in (and write from) Berlin as the Nazi grip tightened and conditions for Jews became increasingly worse — city by city, day by day.
Valy’s letters smolder with desperation, both to see her lover again and to survive the horrors that have befallen her city, country and continent. Most of the letters are reproduced in the text, alongside which Wildman decodes the writer’s attempts to fool the censors who were reading trans-Atlantic correspondences.
But they are also magical, magnetic and playful. Indeed, Wildman saw something of herself in the letter writer.
“She’s obsessed with her career, she’s not so super certain about kids, she’s incredibly well educated,” Wildman said. “She sounds like someone you might want to be with or hang out with. She doesn’t sound like someone far away. And she doesn’t sound perfect either. I think that’s important, too.”
Valy writes to Karl from Berlin in April of 1940, “I lead my life the way I’ve been doing for the past 2 years: in a spirit of waiting, without much joy or hope. But, my darling, don’t feel sad for me; I want you to know that I have people around me — women, — you know that only women are left here?!, who still have something to say, who like me, who help me and who want to make life pleasant for me. But I do not succeed very often, and they never will be able to replace you, my boy! You are and remain far, far away, out of my reach, you exist only in my memories, wonderful, beautiful ‘sunny past.’ … You are no longer even a letter, such as tiny, modest piece of the present. Why don’t you write?”
Why didn’t he write?
Among the things Wildman discovers is how sanitized the story she had been told of her grandfather’s miraculous escape and instantaneous success in America. And “Paper Love” is also its author’s attempt to come to terms with her grandfather’s actions and the guilt that she suspects plagued him for the rest of his life.
And although her grandfather never spoke to his granddaughter about Valy, he unwittingly created an archive for her to plunder, turning himself into a partner in the creation of “Paper Love.”
As Wildman asked herself, “If the Nazi project was to erase these people, to render them unmemorable, to be wiped away from the rolls of history, was there some way that my grandfather had thwarted that by saving these letters, and was there some way I, with the privilege of having stumbled on them, could give this woman back her voice?”
Indeed, Valy comes to life on the page, and her story will haunt those who read “Paper Love” for a long time to come.
When asked what her grandfather would make of her book, Wildman answered, “I think he would be pleased to still be talked about. … Of course it exposes a vulnerable side of him that I don’t think he’d be thrilled with, but I do think ultimately he would be happy to be thought of.”