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One woman’s journey to find the lost love her grandfather left behind when he fled pre-World War II Europe, and an exploration into family identity, myth, and memory.
Years after her grandfather’s death, journalist Sarah Wildman stumbled upon a cache of his letters in a file labeled “Correspondence: Patients A–G.” What she found inside weren’t dry medical histories; instead what was written opened a path into the destroyed world that was her family’s prewar Vienna. One woman’s letters stood out: those from Valy—Valerie Scheftel. Her grandfather’s lover who had remained behind when he fled Europe six months after the Nazis annexed Austria.
Valy’s name wasn’t unknown to her—Wildman had once asked her grandmother about a dark-haired young woman whose images she found in an old photo album. “She was your grandfather’s true love,” her grandmother said at the time, and refused any other questions. But now, with the help of the letters, Wildman started to piece together Valy’s story. They revealed a woman desperate to escape and clinging to the memory of a love that defined her years of freedom.
Obsessed with Valy’s story, Wildman began a quest that lasted years and spanned continents. She discovered, to her shock, an entire world of other people searching for the same woman. On in the course of discovering Valy’s ultimate fate, she was forced to reexamine the story of her grandfather’s triumphant escape and how this history fit within her own life and in the process, she rescues a life seemingly lost to history.
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Sarah Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for The New York Times, Slate, and The New Yorker, among other publications, and is a former New Republic staffer. She is the recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Prize from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the transatlantic relationship,” for the series in Slate where Paper Love originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
IN THE BEGINNING
In my father’s eulogy for my grandfather, he quoted Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch: “Hard pressed on my right; center is yielding; impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent, I shall attack.”
We called my grandfather saba, the modern, muscular Hebrew appellation, rather than the Old World Yiddish, zeyde—or German, Opa—let alone the (far too) American grandpa. Born Chaim, he went by Karl. My grandfather, in my memory and in the hagiography of my family, was a bon vivant, a multilingual, well-traveled émigré doctor who lived with the joie de vivre of a man who had never been oppressed by hardship. Or maybe that’s not right: with the joie de vivre of a man who had known only hardship, and then emerged from it, phoenixlike, into a problemless promised land. He was dashing, a character out of (Jewish) film noir, with the perfect suit, a jaunty hat, a top note of expensive European aftershave, a bottom whiff of Odol, the German minty mouthwash he imported in bulk for himself each time he returned to the Continent. His appeal was not simply aesthetic—his hair, as his friends teased him, was unruly, wildly curly, clipped close to his head by middle age, always pure white in my memory, long and unkempt as a younger man, so much like my own that my sister and I would joke about our “saba hair” when ours would frizz up, above the hairline, beyond our ponytails. His nose was a bit too big, his lips fleshy, and yet he carried himself in the way of men who know they are appealing, who understand women—and men—and how to win over either sex. And swoon they did. His inherent attraction was some combination of pheromones, charisma, charm, actual beauty, mystery.
As much as my grandfather loved America, for what it stood for, for its freedoms, for what it had done for him, he never seemed “of” this country; certainly he stood apart from, or perhaps outside, the town in northwest Massachusetts where he settled and opened a medical practice. His English, though grammatically perfect, had the light, lyrical accent of European sophisticates; he would, biannually, free himself from our idioms entirely for six weeks at a time and find his way back to Europe. The family, at first, remained behind. After a few trips completely alone, by 1952 my grandmother (aware, perhaps, of his attractions) refused to allow him to travel without her. And so they went together, their children left with a babysitter, an Italian-born seamstress musically named Rina DiOrio, whom I remember for her marvelous baskets filled with strips of silks and cottons and tweeds and synthetics, the soft kaleidoscope gleanings of her work that I would tie together into costumes, well into my childhood.
Six weeks they left their kids! Postcards were written to my father and aunt, advising them on where to find their Halloween costumes, to remember to do their homework, to remind them to be in touch by forwarding mail to their next stop, which was, invariably, Munich or Milan or Madrid. It is something I can’t quite imagine, but somehow it was just who he was; and, for the most part, it wasn’t questioned, he was living a life grander, and more cosmopolitan, than his neighbors in their big but rural Massachusetts town—it was a quest to see the world, to live aggressively, that propelled him.
“We have always agreed that life is both grandiose and ridiculous,” Karl wrote to his closest friend, Bruno Klein, an old Viennese schoolmate, in December 1979. “You have always been and still are the master of this concept and this inner certainty. You laugh at the grandiose, the tragic, the heroic, and in the ridiculousness of life, you see grandeur and tragedy and heroism.”
Karl’s flight from Vienna—at age twenty-six, six months after the Anschluss, when Hitler swept through the city to throbbing throngs of well-wishers, and Jewish students were expelled from schools across the city, their families banished from work in hospitals, shops, parks, daily life, their world upended—was always described to me in similar grand terms—danger, excitement, fulfillment—nothing short of remarkable. Because he actually finished his medical degree before Jews were stripped of the right to finish school; because he got out at all. And it was complete with a happily-ever-after ending: the entire family, or at least the core of the group, the essentials, got out safely. The story of that escape—and the way I understood it—shaped my childhood imaginings, my nightmares, my dreams. The reality of that escape shaped his worldview.
To the same Bruno he wrote in 1983, “Atheism is utterly incomprehensible to me. It is such a dry, cynical, uninformed, unfeeling and myopic mind that cannot see and feel and imagine the ‘beyond oneself.’ The energy, the majesty that profuses the cosmos . . . the exhilaration, the joy of life, the infinite of love, call it what you will. Why not God?”
This was very my grandfather. Everything was herrlich, wonderful. Superb. Sublime. He was prone to bold pronouncements, would stand up at family events and command attention with philosophical meanderings. He was a bit prideful, a bit critical, entirely absorbed in the idea of the Jew in History, and where he himself fit into that. I still have my bat mitzvah letter from him, welcoming me to Jewish adulthood. “As you grow and develop and encounter the world at an ever more meaningful and potent level, your awareness of this endowment will inform you, inspire you, and guide you.” He closed with Hazak v’ematz—“Be strong and of good courage,” the words that Moses says to Joshua—“Be not afraid!”—when he realizes it will be Joshua who leads the Jews into the Promised Land and Moses will be left behind.
His relationship to Judaism was as much practical—he had his seat in synagogue, in the second row, he held court at Seder—as it was intellectual, philosophical, a game of minds and text study. To Bruno he wrote, “It is the talent and the destiny of the Jew to have felt and known that there is a beyond, to have pursued it as an idea and principle. . . . The very name Israel is derived from the encounter of Jacob with an angel, a messenger of God. It means to have fought with God and to have prevailed.” To have prevailed! It spoke to the essence of his escape, not to mention his confidence.
It was some years after his death when my grandmother casually told me that she had destroyed my grandfather’s personal correspondence. We were setting the table for dinner. “They sat in a filing cabinet for sixty-something years,” she said. “I decided that was long enough.” We fought about it. “They are all in German,” she said quietly, derisively. But though I hissed petulantly, “It’s not a dead language,” really, what was the point? There was no undoing.
“I saved the important things,” she said, slyly. “Like our love letters.” Emphasis on our. What was destroyed? I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Letters from Shanghai. People you’ve never met. People who are gone.”
Shanghai? People who are gone? It was tantalizing, infuriating. And over time it became clear that the point of her purge was, consciously or not, to preserve the myth of the spotless escape; and, in part, a carefully curated history.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
A few years after our argument, my grandmother was not well. She sat in my grandfather’s old home office, her movements manipulated by some terrible sort of Parkinson’s-like disease, as I rooted around in cabinets asking questions about random artifacts. She had always been so meticulous, in her appearance, in her demeanor; the last few years of her life were a blow to that—though there were some constants. She still perfumed herself with Emeraude, a scent that had remained unchanged—like her—since the 1920s; still wore her deep pink and coral lipsticks, still pushed herself into punishing girdles and stockings and heels, her Achilles tendons shortened by decades propped up on wedges. And she hadn’t changed the office, or the house, at all since his death, as though she—as though we—believed my grandfather would walk back in at any moment, sit down at his enormous walnut desk, and slice through the mail of the day with the long, sharp letter opener he kept for just that purpose. His marble busts of Schiller and Goethe, of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, and Theodor Herzl still sat in one windowsill; on the other side of the room, a black marble Apollo flexed his muscles into eternity. Volumes of literature in German lined the shelves. The deep teal blue and green armchair where he pierced my ears with a needle—at the age of five—was still placed exactly where it always sat, beneath a copper flying-saucer-like pendant light. A midcentury Danish daybed, dressed in green and blue wool, hugged the wall; I occasionally slept on it when I would come to visit.
That afternoon, in the cabinets beneath the bay windows where Goethe sat, staring, I came across an old album, the kind with black pages and photo corners cradling black-and-white snapshots with scalloped edges. The photographs ranged from formal—stiff family portraits from the 1910s to the 1930s—to informal—crowds of laughing European teens and twentysomethings in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
July 1929. On the left, Carl Feldschuh, my grandfather’s brother-in-law; on the right, Karl Wildman; the girl in the middle is a friend.
There was countryside and friends, attractive girls in old-fashioned swimming costumes, and a cheerful, muscular, incomprehensibly young version of the man I’d known as my grandfather, surrounded in one photo by a dozen girls, the literal focal point, the center of attention.
Among these images were dozens of tiny photos of a young woman. “Your Valy” was written on the back of each one, in a feminine hand I didn’t recognize. Here she was, laughing, rolling in the grass in Vienna’s Augarten—next to my grandfather. Here she was mugging, posed, hands on hips. Another showed the two of them lying on a bed, smiling coyly; it was shot into a mirror. There were photos of him and her in bathing suits, the two of them snuggled up close, laughing. They appeared, in the parlance of teenagers, to be more than friends.
How had I never seen this album before, I wondered, turning the pages, trying not to let the paper crumble. This was his life, I realized, before any of us, before, even, my grandmother. And it was a life so—was there any other word for it?—carefree. They look so happy, so young, so fresh in the images dated 1932, 1934, 1935. This was his European life, the life—the people, the experiences—he had left behind.
Tucked into the back of the album, folded into a small, tight square, was a piece of paper pasted with a series of photos the girl named Valy had taken of herself. Each square was numbered, 1 through 4. “I am so sad,” says the first (they are all written in German). “I’m still waiting, but no letter from Karl has come yet!” Here she makes a serious face. Then in square 2—“Maybe this will help: ‘. . . If not, then not’”—a photo, a wistful face (she is, I learn later, quoting from a popular song of the turn of the last century, “Der Eine Allein”). Square 3: “But no, it would be so much nicer if he’d write again, the way he used to, the way I endlessly long for it to be! If only he’d write again at last.” Her gaze is now turned away from the camera, into the middle distance. By the fourth image she has turned again to her viewer, with a big smile: “But maybe a letter will come tomorrow! One will surely come, won’t it?!”
The little note was dated May 5, 1939, about ten months after my grandfather had left Europe.
I held the document up and asked my grandmother who the author was. “Your grandfather’s true love,” she said, and offered nothing more. His what? My grandmother was not a terribly romantic woman. What a totally peculiar, what a totally devastating thing to say. I tried to press her on it, but she demurred and retired to her room. She refused to comment further; I feared to ask more.
Back at home, I called my grandfather’s sister, Cilli. “Who was she?” I asked. Ah, Valy, she said, with a sigh, and a moment’s hesitation. Valy and Karl, she explained, studied at the University of Vienna’s medical school together. Valy had been desperately in love with him for years, and he had barely noticed her. That lopsided relationship remained true until one summer, partway through his medical degree, when he ran to find her at home—she was from Czechoslovakia—and professed his love for her as well. They had had a few years together. And then he’d escaped to New York. She stayed behind. “She was brilliant. Brilliant! A wonderful girl.” Vonderful.
Later that week I ran into a prominent Jewish intellectual. Breathlessly I told him of my find: My grandfather had a lover, he’d left her behind, and who knew what happened. Maybe there was a woman to be found out there, maybe . . .
“Someday,” he said, barely looking up, “you’ll pass through Berlin or Vienna. And you’ll fuck some German. And then you’ll write your story.”
Crushed, I thought, Oh God, this intrigue, this intensity; it’s all so horribly banal. Of course there are these Holocaust stories, of course there were lovers left, of course lives were rerouted, uprooted, destroyed. What new story would I find, really? What more was there to say?
Cilli wrote to me that week. She sent the note by regular mail, to my office. “Maybe you’ll write the story of Karl and Valy,” she typed, “maybe you’re the one to tell it.”
But I had already stopped digging.
One after the other, my great-aunt, and then my grandmother, died. I had failed to ask more questions, even though I wondered, often, if there was more to the story of the girl in the photographs. I assumed if there was more to know, it had been thrown away, purposely or not, destroyed by my grandmother in her purge of my grandfather’s documents. Later, much later, far too late, I went back and listened to an interview I had conducted with Cilli for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in the months after I graduated from college. Valy was everywhere in her memories, but I hadn’t yet known to listen for her.
“He had a girlfriend who he went to medical school with, she was very bright, and very short, and she was so much in love with him!” Cilli said that long-ago December afternoon. “She would wait every night—until eleven or twelve—while he was out giving lessons to students. She was from Czechoslovakia. . . .” And then, later, the tape mentions her again: “He was making plans with Valy to run away from Austria—this girlfriend—he knew as a foreigner he could not open a medical office in Vienna. Then, instead, he ran away with us.”
These sentences hang there on the recording, ready for a follow-up. But each time I listen to it, the outcome is the same: I do not press her to explain further when I hear the name Valy. I do not follow up. Instead, I focus, exclusively, on...
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Book Description Riverhead Books, 2014. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # MB011DB2W96
Book Description Riverhead Books, 2014. Hardcover. Condition: Brand New. 288 pages. 9.25x6.50x1.25 inches. In Stock. Seller Inventory # zk1594631557