Journalist and Kveller contributor Sarah Wildman is the author of the recently released “Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind” (Riverhead Books, 2014). Over the six years it took Wildman to research and then write the book, she also became the mother of two girls, aged 5 ¾ and 17 months. She chatted with me about the motivations and challenges of chasing down this extraordinary love story on both sides of the Atlantic.
How would you characterize your relationship with your grandfather as a child?
My grandfather was larger than life, the patriarch in every way we think of that word. He was incredibly warm, incredibly charismatic, and he made everyone feel that he or she was the only person in the room. He used to kiss my hand, like a Viennese gentleman. I was in awe of him, a bit.
How did you happen to find out about his paramour, Valy, and what drew you to learn more about her?
I first discovered that my grandfather had a lover in Vienna before he fled to the States when I was in my early 20s (my grandfather was no longer alive at that point). In my grandparents’ house, I came across a photo album filled with marvelous antique photos. Among them were dozens upon dozens of pictures of one girl. And in the back of the album, there was a folded note of the type we all passed around in our pre-text era. In each quadrant of that note was the same girl’s picture. I asked my grandmother who she was and she said that was Valerie—Valy Scheftel—my grandfather’s “true love.”
I called his sister Cilli, who was still alive at that time, and she said Valy was brilliant, a doctor like my grandfather. They had studied together at the University of Vienna medical school. Cilli, that week, wrote me a letter urging me to write their story—that there was a love story there, waiting to be told. It took me over a decade to realize she was right.
In conducting research for the book, where did your travels take you?
I’m glad you asked that question because the book very much became a journey through all the places Valy lived, a journey to look at what the French call lieux de memoire—places of memory—as I wanted to see all the places she had walked, and retrace her steps, so that I could give this love affair geography (they were so in love with their city, Vienna!).
Also, I wanted to see what remained of them in each place, if anything at all. So often the cities just went on, as cities do, and I wanted to see that as well, the way that a city is almost like an archaeological dig, layers upon layers of living. So to that end I spent months in Vienna and Berlin, and traveled as well to far West Germany (Bad Arolsen), through the Czech Republic, London, and Israel—as well as zigging and zagging around the United States.
What “find” or clue during your research was most illuminating?
Well, finding Valy’s letters was far and away the most important thing I discovered, and learning how to read them—picking up the small clues she gives as to her life under the Reich—was amazing. But then I also discovered a tremendous amount about her in archives across Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Here, too, I found a great deal: In the Immigration Research Center archives of the University of Minnesota, I found pages and pages of material on my grandfather himself, upon arrival in America.
But the craziest discovery, of all the discoveries, was that someone else had come looking for Valy, before me, in the 1950s.
How did writing the book affect your understanding of the Holocaust? Of your own family roots and identity?
This became a project of understanding that the Nazi effort had been not only to exterminate, but to erase. To render those murdered literally unmemorable. I wanted to undo that, to find out about lives lived under the Reich, in particular one life, one incredibly modern, intellectual woman.
For me, it also upended what had been a very childlike idea that my “whole” family had escaped. Of course my grandfather had lost many, many people—including those very close to him, including family members—and his whole world had been undone, exploded.
That said, “Paper Love” became very much a search for one remarkable person, Valy, and exploring her experiences changed how I came to understand what it means to live in this moment.
Do you have any advice for other Jewish travelers hoping to search for their own roots in Europe?
There is so much that can be discovered. Jewish genealogists are fantastic; there’s so, so much material out there. I think Jewish travelers should definitely dive in. There’s so much to be learned, so much to find. And often there are locals who are really enthusiastic about Jews looking back.
Jewish travelers can often take Jewish tours—of everywhere from Barcelona to Warsaw—but I’d encourage them, too, to try to find out as many specifics as possible. What street did your father or grandfather live on? There is something incredibly powerful about walking down that street, and looking up at the address that an ancestor lived at.
It makes our lives as Americans seem all that much more accidental; we are who we are by the choices those who came before us made. Often that we are here at all is because they left. But understanding where they came from can be a very emotional means for understanding ourselves. At least that’s how it was for me.
As a pregnant mother, what special emotions did you experience carrying one of your children on this journey with you?
My joke is always that my next book should be “The Well Traveled Fetus.” I traveled extensively through both pregnancies. It was, of course, powerful and bizarre to be—as I say in the book—growing little Jews in pursuit of lost Jews. In some ways I felt subversive in it, a little defiant. And very visible, in a way that only being a visibly pregnant woman can be. It is impossible to be un-obtrusive with a big belly!
How will having written this book affect your role as a mother/parent?
Well I hope it makes me more conscious of celebrating each moment. That might sound cheesy, or trite, but it’s really true. “Be here,” I say in my head, to myself, all the time—when I’m nursing, or when I’m with the girls just playing, or reading a book.
In fact it’s what my grandfather wrote to a friend late in my book—“that tomorrow is not more important than today.” Having my girls allowed me not to be so totally mired in the past. I’d like to say that the book will help me recognize the small joys of everyday normalcy. But that’s really what I hope it will do; it’s what I strive to recognize is a great privilege. I forget it, though, a lot. And so I constantly try to draw myself back to the wonder of a normal life.
Do you consider this book a “Jewish” story?
It is, of course, a Jewish story in that this is an essential piece of Jewish history, but it is also a human story—about the breaking points that humanity takes itself to, about the preservation of human-ness, if that’s a word, in the face of indescribably difficult conditions, about what makes us human. So in that respect, I very much hope it is both a Jewish story and a human one.