Let­ters trace tale of doomed lovers

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Sharon Chisvin

KIt is fas­ci­nat­ing to read. Sarah Wild­man, a for­mer writer for Slate and the New York Times, be­came ob­sessed with Valy’s story after dis­cov­er­ing dozens of let­ters the young physi­cian had writ­ten to Karl be­tween 1938 and 1941. De­ter­mined to find out ex­actly who Valy was and what had hap­pened to her, Wild­man spent years trav­el­ling the globe, comb­ing Holo­caust ar­chives and speak­ing with any­one she could find who may have crossed paths with Valy. As she trav­elled, in­ter­viewed, and pored over maps and yel­lowed doc­u­ments, Wild­man kept re­turn­ing to the let­ters that Valy wrote to Karl. In each of th­ese, Valy re­minds Karl of their shared his­tory and love, and be­seeches him to help her get the nec­es­sary visa so that she can leave Europe. Karl tries, but pen­ni­less his first years in the U.S., he can­not find the re­sources to help her. By the time he can, Valy is liv­ing in Berlin and the doors out of Ger­many have been sealed. Wild­man uses Valy’s let­ters to great ef­fect. They are re­plete with ex­cep­tional de­tail about her daily life, work, and the un­cer­tainty, ru­mours, fear and short­ages that come to de­fine her in­creas­ingly nar­rowed ex­is­tence. Mostly they are about her long­ing for Karl. “… you are the first and up­per­most prin­ci­ple in my life.” she writes to him in Oc­to­ber 1941. “I can­not even ex­ist alone and I don’t want to be any­thing but a part of you or some­thing to­gether with you. Ev­ery­thing else seems mean­ing­less to me.” Many of her let­ters also beg Karl to write more fre­quently.

Oddly, it is this de­tail, in a book full of heart­break­ing de­tails, that is one of the hard­est for read­ers to di­gest. Wild­man, to her credit, does ac­knowl­edge that Karl did not al­ways re­spond to Valy in a timely fash­ion, but in­sists, not en­tirely con­vinc­ingly, that this was solely due to Karl’s em­bar­rass­ment and guilt about be­ing un­able to help her. She re­mains cer­tain that he did all he could to stay in touch with Valy and save her. But that cer­tainty does not even mat­ter, be­cause Sarah Wild­man her­self, 70 years later, has en­sured Valy’s sur­vival. By writ­ing Valy’s story, find­ing out what she did, how she loved, where she lived, and how she died, she gives life to the girl her grand­fa­ther left be­hind. ARL Wild­man was among the lucky ones. In 1938, on the eve of the An­schluss, Ger­many’s an­nex­a­tion of Aus­tria, he man­aged to get a visa that al­lowed him to em­i­grate from Vi­enna to the United States. Although he strug­gled his first years in Amer­ica, he even­tu­ally es­tab­lished a suc­cess­ful med­i­cal prac­tice, mar­ried, raised a fam­ily and en­joyed a long life filled with achieve­ment, leisure and love. His med­i­calschool girl­friend, Valy Shef­tel, was not as lucky. She never made it out of Europe, and died in Auschwitz on Jan. 29, 1943. Pa­per Love: Search­ing for the Girl My Grand­fa­ther Left Be­hind is her story. Writ­ten by Karl’s grand­daugh­ter, Sarah Wild­man, it is a re­mark­able work of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism. In scope, sen­ti­ment and its metic­u­lous re­search, it is com­pa­ra­ble to Daniel Men­del­sohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Mil­lion. Sharon Chisvin is a Win­nipeg writer

and ed­i­tor.

Pa­per Love: SSearch­ing for the Girl My Grand­fa­ther Left

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