What once appeared to be a simple legacy — a grandfather who escaped, who created a better life away from the European killing fields — became a story of a world upended, a life set aside, a narrative rerouted.
This non-fiction work by journalist Sarah Wildman is not the usual account of the Holocaust. After her grandfather’s death, she found a trove of letters written to him from the girlfriend he left behind in Austria after the 1938 Anschluss. Her grandfather Karl Wildman, as the family story went, had been one of the lucky ones to get to the US with his family — his mother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew — before it was too late. He became a successful doctor in Massachusetts and had a wonderful life. When Sarah found the letters and a photo album from her grandfather’s youth in Vienna, she asked her American-born grandmother who this frequent correspondent Valy was and was told “the love of his life.”
In searching to find out what happened to Valerie “Valy” Scheftel, Wildman learns about the experience of Jews attending medical school in pre-WWII Vienna, the grinding oppression of the Nazi regime as it developed over the years just before and then during the war, as well as the despair and clinging-to-hope that dominated the daily experiences of those left behind, including other members of the Wildman family. For those familiar with Holocaust literature such as Anne Frank’s diary or the memoirs of survivors such as Elie Wiesel, Wildman’s research might be something of a revelation. I was unaware of correspondence between those Jews left in Europe and family or friends who made it out. I think the assumption is that the repression of the Nazis would have prevented such a thing from happening, but in the early days of the regime the Nazis encouraged emigration. Of course, several formidable obstacles prevented emigration, some known and some revealed here. Certainly, Nazi policies and restrictions on Jews made filing the paperwork difficult and expensive; the rampant anti-semitism elsewhere in the world, such as the US State Department, was another major obstacle to immigration; and the great financial cost of paying to emigrate prevented many from leaving. This is where the correspondence from Valy and Karl’s relatives becomes painful to read. Those left behind expected that their friends and relatives who made it to America had the means to help the rest of them out. As we learn from Wildman’s research, her grandfather’s early years in the US were not as lucky and successful as his later years. Wildman learns that her grandfather struggled to get his license to practice medicine and start up a practice in the US, and only succeeded over the course of many years with the help of loans from a philanthropic society. Karl, like many other emigres, was financially strapped.
Valy remains a faithful correspondent to Karl until the end of 1941, when communication more or less stopped. Karl was a less faithful writer to Valy, and her hurt and sadness is reflected in her letters. Wildman spent years trying to track down Valy and trace the course of her life from Vienna, to her home town in Czechoslovakia, to Berlin. Despite other researchers’ admonitions not to get her hopes up, Wildman persists in looking for some closure to Valy’s story; she desperately wants to know what happened to this lovely, intelligent doctor and whether or not she or her descendants are alive. Along the way, Wildman becomes acquainted with survivors, scholars, and an assortment of interesting folks who sometimes help and sometimes hinder her work. Another interesting revelation has to do with the way survivors view the work of US journalists like Wildman:
… we American Jews, so anxious to scoop up these stories, to take them for ourselves, we help ourselves to them as though they are our birthright. We try to take more than our fair share, really.
The survivors’ sharing of stories is a topic of some fascination. Some survivors are protective of their stories and information because they want to reveal it on their own terms rather than have some young American put it in her book. Many survivors and their children seem to have had a tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement. Wildman’s father never quizzed his own father about his past in Vienna before the war, and Karl never spoke of it. Other relatives are unaware of their own parents’ and grandparents’ pre-war stories until Wildman unearths them, and she wonders if she should have kept the information to herself.
In the end, Wildman does find out what happened to Valy and she has a deeper understanding, if still unanswered questions, about her own grandfather. Still, she concludes:
My grandfather, I think, really did have a happy life. He insisted upon happiness, almost, perhaps, as his own revenge. Nevertheless: he kept the letters that reminded him of when he was powerless. Of when there was nothing to be done.
If you are interested in survivors’ stories, check out this episode of This Is Your Life from 1953, referenced in Wildman’s book and featuring Hanna Bloch Kohner. And for the parts of Kohner’s story that could not be mentioned on TV in 1953, read this. Wildman’s book is a heartfelt, beautifully written story of her father, Valy and a world that disappeared in a most brutal fashion.