Paper Love by Sarah Wildman

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

The editorial in this week’s Jewish Exponent reminded me that today is International Holocaust Memorial Day, established by the United Nations 10 years ago. The day of January 27th was chosen “to commemorate the day that Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz, the quintessential symbol of the Nazis’ killing machine” (1/22/15 Jewish Exponent). About the only thing I remember of WWII was my father’s volunteer job as an air raid warden and nights when all the lights were shut off as a drill for a raid. We were lucky!!

Jews in Europe were not so lucky, as we learn in the book review for today written by the granddaughter of a (then) young doctor who fled to America from Austria right before Germany invaded that country, leaving is first love behind. The book is compelling reading!

Paper Love by Sarah Wildman is a love story, a holocaust story, and an odyssey by the author to unravel the story behind letters at the beginning of WWII, written to her (deceased) grandfather by his first love, Valerie Scheftel (Valy). The author found a caché of letters and black and white photos inside a folder supposedly marked for his patients when her parents were clearing out her grandparents’ home. These poignantly beautiful letters become part of Wildman’s powerful narrative, following Valy’s love for Wildman’s grandfather, when he leaves Austria right after the Nazis occupy his homeland and travels to the United States to practice medicine, while Valy stays behind to take care of her mother, hoping to join him later.

Because Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for publications such as The New York Times, The Nation, Slate (where the book originated), she has the know-how and resources to search for Valy, going to such places as The International Tracing Service in Germany. Wildman also makes professional contact with people in Europe who have information that helps the author put the puzzle pieces of Valy’s whereabouts together. As she notes on page 87: “I wanted to know if the Gestapo had kept track of Valy’s life after1939 and, especially her experiences after 1941, when her letters to my grandfather stopped.”

Sarah Wildman’s odyssey spans almost a decade, and during that time she births two daughters. She notes often that she was “carrying a little Jew inside her.” Sarah also connects what she is experiencing during her search for Valy, such as her pregnancy, with her thoughts about the Holocaust. For example, she makes a point of writing that pregnant Jewish women were not allowed to live when they were rounded up from their homes. They were immediately sent to the death camps. So her own pregnancy becomes a stepping-stone to her feelings about women who never lived to birth their own babies.

There is a great deal of detail in this book with facts I never knew about, such as the one that half of the Jewish population in Australia consisted of holocaust survivors who could not get into the first country of their choice. Another example is about her grandfather, who came to America having received his doctor’s degree right before Germany invaded Austria and banned Jews from the universities. When he applied to come to the US, we learn that only two states accepted Jewish doctors: New York and Massachusetts. He chose the latter and started out with borrowing money in order to open a practice. His mother sold most of her possessions to survive while her son was building his slowly successful medical practice. Dr. Wildman was paying back loans before he could help others trapped in Europe, including Valy and her mother.

Regarding her grandfather in America, the author’s search for Valy is also a search for her grandfather’s life before coming to America and marrying, not Valy, but a young woman he meets in the US. Financially unable to help others like Valy when he first came seems to appear in accusatory letters in the same pile as Valy’s letters, but from relatives of his or of Valy’s who beseech him for help. Did he feel guilt, shame, responsibility? Wildman could not find answers to these questions in her search. Too many people in her search were no longer alive.

This book brings to light the horrendous living conditions of those left to face the war in Europe, where Jewish life becomes more and more intolerable each week. Jews lose the right to universities, to libraries, to be out at night, to property, to a dignified life. Thus, while this is a book about the Holocaust, it focuses not on the death camps, but more on the daily difficulties that Valy and other Jews faced because they were unable to get to safety in America, or Cuba, or Australia, or South America.

Paper Love was painfully necessary for me to read, because it reveals so much more about the Holocaust than I ever remember reading. And I cannot ignore this love story, because the beautifully written letters tell us about one person, Valy, and her struggle to survive, hoping against hope that her desperation for freedom and love for Karl Wildman would bring her to America. Thus, Valy becomes a real person in my head, and I cannot release her strong will to survive.

What Sarah Wildman has so accurately accomplished is to give us a microcosmic view, through Valy (and her mother) of the struggle of daily life for Jews in Europe during WWII, with smaller glances at life for Jews in America through her own experiences with her grandfather before he died. The book is very personal with the professional imprint of a skilled investigative reporter whose love for her grandfather and compassion for his first love Valy are forged into a painfully powerful narrative that brings Valy to life. Instead of her being lost to history, Valy is given a rightful place in the horrendous Holocast narrative that you will never forget when you read this book.

Note: Just as a movie has a long list of people responsible for bringing the actors onto the screen, so does Sarah Wildman express her thanks to dozens of people who helped her gain information on Valy. The author’s obsession with finding out Valy’s fate takes her back and forth to Vienna, Berlin, Russia and any place where she could find traces of Valy.  The people who help her along the way are not always Jewish nor do they always approve of her goals. But Wildman presses on with her obsession. Additionally, at the end of the book are notes and resources for each of the chapters, which demonstrate the significant amount of investigating the author has accomplished to bring Valy’s life to light.

Paper Love by Sarah Wildman is from Riverhead Books (A division of Penguin Books, NY, 2014) and costs $27.95 in hardcover (386 pages).

P.S. I just read a fascinating posting from Women’s Voices for Change about a Bulgarian Jew during WWII.  Click on this link:

Documentary: “Every Revolution Is an Adventure”

by Alexandra MacAaron