Letters trace tale of doomed lovers
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
Paper Love: SSearching for the Girl My Grandfather Left