Desperate Missives From Wartime Berlin: A Writer Searches for the Woman Her Grandfather Left Behind

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Valy captured at the banks of Vienna's Donaukanal. 'She was your grandfather's true love,' Wildman's grandmother told her.Credit: Courtesy Riverhead Books

"Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind," by Sarah Wildman

Riverhead Books, 400 pages, $27.95

Desperate letters arrive from a young Jewish woman – Valerie Scheftel, a Czech-born doctor with a University of Vienna degree, bobbed hair, shy smile.

Postmarked in Berlin between 1938 and 1941, the letters are addressed to the Pittsburgh office of a Dr. C.J. Wildman – Valy’s sweetheart Karl, a Viennese Jew known for his charm and endless good luck, who had managed to escape just in time, leaving Valy behind.

Decades later, after Karl’s death, Sarah Wildman finds these letters in her grandfather’s patient files after his death, and in her debut memoir, “Paper Love,” she traces her search for the woman behind the letters – the girl her grand father had left behind. “She was your grandfather’s true love,” Wildman’s grandmother tells her simply.

Karl had carefully filed Valy’s letters away, alongside other wartime letters from relatives and friends from all over the world; some are appeals for help, others are missives from places of refuge – a collection of lamentations from fellow Viennese Jews, those who had been equally obsessed with and then betrayed by Vienna and what Wildman calls its “ideal of the perfect city.”

“My grandfather’s Viennese world was so embittered,” Wildman, a widely published journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Slate, writes. “So angry – at their fate, but also at him for having missed the worst of it, he got off easy, it is the subtext of their letters. It was a bitterness that transcended generations, seeped through to our modern, easier lives.”

The beginning of Wildman’s memoir – roughly the first half of the entire book – seems like yet another bright-eyed American’s search for roots in ghost-ridden Europe, reminiscent of Daniel Mendelsohn’s 2006 memoir “The Lost.” The idea of the search may not be especially original (and must a story be original? If a victim’s story is almost identical to others, does it render it irrelevant?), but in keeping with the ancient Talmudic equation of one life with an entire world, the search is still meaningful – a sobering reminder of the value of one life, one story, one name, a singular name emerging from six million and making the Holocaust, once again, personal.

Sarah WildmanCredit: Kate Warren

Wildman’s search reads like the flurry of papers she sifts through, found in boxes “bundled... and brought to basements in New Jersey and New York, where they were promptly forgotten again”: a jumbled mess of documents, debt statements, personal letters, foreign stamps. Medical school-era photographs of Karl and Valy together in bathing suits, sitting on the grass, grinning; Valy’s portraits show her in a nurse’s cap, on an Austrian balcony, later posing somberly in a dark home in a wide-collared dress.

Wildman, less and less preoccupied with her grandfather’s memory, becomes increasingly obsessed with understanding Valy, her life and her death, and embarks on a journey that feels not unlike an international treasure hunt.

'Paper Love,' by Sarah Waldman.

‘Comfort and torture at the same time'

“My beloved only one, my boy!” begins one letter from Valy to Karl from 1940 while she is working with children in a Jewish kindergarten, and as the war rages around her, as the finally doors close upon Germany Jewry. “When I am doing what I’ve been doing all these days, when I am dressing the children’s wounds, when they call out to me at night, when I cannot go back to sleep afterwards and when I am sitting by the window, sick with longing. Always your words – ‘you will be with me’ are comfort and torture at the same time.”

She writes of her frustrations in appealing for exit visas, of her loneliness and her various jobs, and the many memories of a youth together: “And this time cannot be over yet darling. I beg you... tell me. That this cannot be. It is impossible don’t you agree? It cannot be. Darling?! I think about all those things and I ask myself in which phase of your life you are right now.”

Valy’s desperate appeals are shown in parallel with other documents that Wildman finds in German archives: a list of Valy’s property and assets, a letter in which Valy’s mother asserts her Jewish identity to the local Gestapo office, letters from friends and acquaintances who had seen Valy last.

Karl captured at the banks of Vienna's Donaukanal. Photo courtesy of Riverhead Books.

Wildman’s historical notes and interviews are at times tangential and too anecdotal, detracting from the main narrative of Valy’s life; sometimes, they offer powerful context for Valy’s letters. Most significant, and most relevant to Valy’s frustrated letters, are the internal American diplomatic memos cited by Wildman, memos which depict the Americans’ refusal to admit more Jewish refugees, alongside U.S. intelligence that reveals a full awareness of growing deportations to the East.

“Word has come through from Berlin,” one internal American diplomatic memo from October 25, 1941, says, “...that before the end of this month about 20,000 Jews are to be deported from German cities to German-occupied Poland, principally to the ghetto of Lodz.”

This dissonance, that of a short memo sent across front lines with news from Berlin to the safety of America, is brought to a painful realization in the contrast between Valy, the Vienna of her youth and now her crumbling Berlin, the daily reality of ration cards, yellow stars, deportations – and her former sweetheart, reading her words in the silence of his American home – that very home to which he brings his new, American wife, Dorothy, in late 1942. One wonders how the two can coexist at all – and what kind of a lifetime of survivor’s guilt this then entails for Karl.

Increasingly, Valy’s letters grow exasperated – she is ever hopeful that an exit visa will come through, to America, to Cuba, to Chile, anywhere, but she is frustrated that her Karl is silent: “My dear, dear boy, The many unanswered letters I have written to you meanwhile have become a legion!... All I can do is hope that my letters will reach you one day and you will write to me.” Wildman wonders if Valy’s obsession with her grandfather is really about him – “Or is it the idea that being with him will mean she has survived all this?”

Wildman travels to Vienna and Berlin, determined to follow every footstep of both Karl and Valy – their homes, their schools, their workplaces. She stands at the steps of Valy’s last home, and then, at the train platform from which Valy left Berlin forever. Her search takes her to museums, meetings with historians and scholars, and then to London – where she discovers, by chance, that she isn’t the only one in the world looking for Valy Scheftel.

Of Karl’s responses to his Valy, we know little. His granddaughter has few clues to that, some remnants of his correspondence with relief organizations, some letters from Valy’s acquaintances imploring him for help – but the reader can only infer of his responses to Valy based on her letters, and based on her pleas to him to write to her: “I am waiting, waiting, waiting for letters from you.” Wildman grows despondent as she reads, with the sinking realization that her grandfather had turned his back on the woman who loved him.

Valy, in an undated photo found in Karl Wildman's files by his granddaughter. Photo courtesy of Riverhead Books.

Wildman raises commonly voiced questions that are at first implicit, and by the end, grow louder: “Do [our children] need these stories too? How can we impart this history without the burden?”

One wonders how many more of these truth-seeking missions are left in younger generations today, and if those journeys are as necessary to our identity as they were for previous generations. Wildman, born in the mid-70s, may be haunted by her grandfather’s letters, but would a young American Jew born 20 years later experience the same obsession to find closure? Will these individual marches-of-the-living always be relevant? Or will they fade as the generations pass?

As Wildman’s search continues for the woman whose memory haunts her, her grandfather Karl – that happy-go-lucky American dream with a slight German accent – fades into the background of the narrative, and it is Valy who emerges – human, breathing, dreaming, and forever mysterious. It is Dr. Valy Scheftel who fascinates the reader, and for whom this book is worth reading – the woman whose letters cease before she disappears in a raid in January 1943 and on a transport to Auschwitz shortly afterward.

If Wildman returned from her journey with a new understanding of herself, it is unclear – the emphasis here is on the search itself, the process rather than the presumed goal. But if her purpose is to offer Valy a voice, a tribute, then she is certainly successful. By the last pages of “Paper Love,” it is clear that the legacy of Valy Scheftel lies less in the details of the deportations themselves, and more in our imaginations, in the lingering question marks as we try to piece together a singular life whose last breaths lie in a bundle of letters.

Avital Chizhik, a frequent contributor to Haaretz English Edition, is a writer living in New York City.

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