A Secret Family History Shows “Regular” Life Under the Reich: Sarah Wildman on Paper Love

Sarah Wildman’s new book, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind (Riverhead) chronicles her quest to find the woman her grandfather left behind in Vienna when he escaped the Nazis in 1938. It’s part memoir, part personal history, part World War II history, and part globetrotting detective story—and completely riveting.

Wildman’s quest began after the deaths of her grandparents, when she opened a box labeled “Correspondence: Patients A-G.” Since her grandfather was a doctor, the box, at least from the outside, seemed unremarkable. But what Wildman discovered inside was anything but: a trove of letters from a woman named Valy, a woman who had been her grandfather’s lover in Vienna, and who was desperately trying to get out of Nazi occupied Europe herself.

What was your first reaction when you opened the box and discovered what was inside? Did you have any inkling that putting together the pieces of this story would consume you for the next six years?

I remember finding the letters and thinking, immediately, “Oh my God. it’s Valy. These are from Valy!” — I had heard her name, once, years ago.  I was rummaging around in my grandfather’s old office and came across a series of old photos, and a funny folded note she had sent my grandfather. At the time I asked my grandmother who this girl was and she had said, dryly, “your grandfather’s true love.”

So that first night, when I came across the motherlode of her missives, I was…in shock. I pulled these letters all out on my parents dining room table and immediately emailed a bunch of friends saying, you won’t believe what I came across.  I had no idea that figuring out the story would take six years though! A year, maybe. but six? No. In part that was the nature of the search, methodical at times, chaotic at others, a flood at times, a trickle or a dead end at others.

All your memories of your grandfather were of a cosmopolitan, successful, happy, and above all, “lucky” man, who got out of Europe in the nick of time, ending up in western Massachusetts with a successful medical practice. But you discovered, through your indefatigable sleuthing, that things were not easy at all: that he was destitute, struggled to establish that medical practice, and was haunted by those who weren’t so lucky to get out, and for whom he didn’t have the means to help. Did that change who you thought your grandfather was? 

In some ways it made me love him more, I think, that he went through that and came out the other side not embittered but emboldened.  It made me realize, too, that we all, in some ways, curate how we are perceived. Not only now, in the era of cheery Facebook posts, but also then. Perhaps even more so then, when they could make very sharp distinctions for themselves about what was shared and what was not.  It made me realize, too, that life was far far harder for him than I had ever imagined.

Your documentation of the hardship your grandfather faced upon arriving in the United States was absolutely stunning. Why do you think he never talked about it, that he succeeded in spite of seemingly impossible obstacles?

I wonder if, in some ways, it didn’t fit his narrative of himself.  From what everyone tells me, even as a young man, in Vienna, life was “herrlich” wonderful-  and this was a blip, in some ways. The years of hardship were all in service of a different image.  He believed in himself, or wanted to, and I think turning his back on the years of poverty and hunger was a means of creating the person he wanted to be.  He certainly never spoke of it with his children, let alone his grandchildren.

How much do you think your grandmother knew about Valy? Did your father or your aunt know anything at all?

Well she called Valy my grandfather’s “true love,” which certainly made me curious. DId that mean they had argued over her? It sounded a bit like that. had she read letters? had she known the story? I think she knew a fair amount. Perhaps he shared with her this sense of impotence in his inability to bring Valy to America after he left Vienna. I don’t know what my grandmother knew, exactly, but whatever she did know made her uncomfortable.  My father and aunt had both heard the name, but not the extent of the story. Not at all.

You write in the book about lengthy visits to Europe your grandparents took together after the war. I kept thinking as I read this — was he looking for Valy? What do you think?

I think, in some ways, he was looking for himself. Part of the process of the book was understanding how incredibly discomforting it would have been—is always—for refugees whose entire world seals up behind them, like a sinkhole in the ground. All those markers of your life that you use, subsconsciously, to remind yourself of your past, gone. Particularly those people who were your markers. How strange to return to a place and know that not a single person of your early life— to age 26!—remained there. Not one. How strange and horrible to see the architecture as it was, and yet know that everyone was replaced.  I think that that sense of displacement lingered with him and he was a bit of a man of two worlds.

But yes: I think at the beginning he was looking for Valy and other survivors. I don’t know if that’s why he went back, again and again and again.

You have only Valy’s letters to your grandfather, some photographs, and some letters from others who knew her. Yet you are able to paint such a vivid portrait of her. How were you able to accomplish that? 

You are so kind! Well, as the chief archivist at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Aubrey Pomerance, cautioned me early on—there is no one document that paints a person’s life from beginning to end or even middle. Valy gives us so so much—she is a gorgeous writer, she is modern, she is obsessed with her career, she is not terribly keen on children, she has a tangential relationship to God—if any at all, though towards the end of 1941 she talks about God a bit more—and I think all those things added up to allowing me to see her, and hopefully to bring her to readers as well.

She’s an incredibly real woman, she is not terribly dissimilar from us. She is our age.  And somehow, I think, that makes her all the more relatable. Finding small pieces in archives—her school registration, for example, the fact that the Gestapo notes she kept a microscope with her as she moved from place to place to place, and all her books, all these things add up to painting her picture.  I tried to use her letters with the state files on her case and weave from that a narrative that gives as deep a profile as possible.

Also, I’ll add, that I found geography to be essential. I wanted to paint a picture of what she was seeing as she walked down the street, so being in each of the places she wrote from, really physically walking those blocks, those cities, was very helpful.

You write in the book about accessing previously unavailable archives. Was there one archival “find,” in particular, that either served as a revelation or an essential clue?

Well the craziest find of all, and I won’t give too much away about it, was discovering that I was not the first to come looking for Valy.  In the 1950s and into the 1960s a woman named Ilse Charlotte Meyer wrote from London to the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, searching for Valy. That was a revelation to me, and it also pointed to something else: none of us exist alone. We can’t really search for a single person unless we are willing to open up that search to community, or family, or friends.  Finding her community became the key to finding her. but that all started with a “tracing and documentation” file at ITS, dated from the 1950s, with someone else years ahead of me in her search.

For many of us, Holocaust stories are familiar, yet by telling Valy’s story, and telling it in such gripping detail, you bring the reader into a world not many are familiar with at all: what life was like for Jews living and working under Nazi occupation in cities like Vienna and Berlin. You have said this was important to you because the Nazis’ goal was “erasure,” an ever-tightening, dehumanizing vise around Jews’ daily human activities and movements, with the ultimate goal of removing all traces of their very existence. To what extent were you able to use archival research and historical documentation to piece together what Valy described in her letters, and what others described in letters to your grandfather, about what those conditions were like?

What I realized, early on, was that though I’ve studied the period for some time, even for me the Holocaust occurs in big moments- Kristalnacht, then the Yellow Star, then Camps. Or, say, einsatzgruppen mowing down entire villages by bullets. Horrible. Enormous. Deadly.

But in fact the Holocaust was also, very much, an effort to dehumanize and destroy, to upend lives by taking away all intellectual and emotional stimuli.  Valy’s letters are all censored  but she gives us clues throughout—she is working for the Reichsvereinigung, the Jewish Council of Berlin, she worries she will be forced out of medicine (she was a doctor) and into a factory—and she drops clues. “You know there are only women here?” she says, at one point, and it is a reference to the fact that, after Kristalnacht, men were the first to flee because, at first, they were the ones who suffered most.

I felt it was very important to understand what life was like between Kristlnacht and the star and between  the star and deportations, because thousands upon thousands of Jews were being crushed during those years, they were being starved, they were humiliated, they were being excised from society. And that was as much of the Holocaust, in some ways, as the extermination and was the precursor to the final solution.

Valy’s story, then, is both a “small” story—in other words, Valy’s story—and a “big” story, one that casts light on the atrocities of the Nazis in new ways. Which drove you more as you sought to tell Valy’s story as fully as you could?

I have long been obsessed with the idea of what happened to regular people. Those who didn’t own big art. who weren’t wealthy. Who might have been me, in other words.  I felt that if I could tell one woman’s story, I could push back at the Nazi experiment, which was as much to erase people as it was to exterminate them. To render an entire population unmemorable. Valy’s words were not meant to survive. My grandfather ensured that they were not destroyed.

I wanted to take the privilege of that legacy and use it to tell a story about a single person, narrating the destruction of her world, and, in so doing, give us an insight into what Jews, what women, what regular people experienced, day to day, week to week, year to year, under the Reich. What was striking about the search for one woman, was, in some ways, was realizing I needed to learn how to ask the right questions. Indeed: I needed to reconsider what those questions were, and where and of whom to ask them. Once I realized i had to shed a lot of my preconceived ideas on the period, and of my own family, I understood that despite how much i had read and traveled, in search of this woman, there was a tremendous amount to be discovered. I don’t think it’s too much to say I found the experience, at times, shocking, and revelatory.