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A Purge to Preserve the Myth of Spotless Escape

Tuesday, October 13, 2015 | Permalink
Excerpted from Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind by Sarah Wildman, now available in paperback from Riverhead Books.

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 of propping 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.

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.

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Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright ©2015 by Sarah Wildman.

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Interview: Sarah Wildman

Thursday, January 15, 2015 | Permalink

by Annette Gendler

Sarah Wildman’s Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind, her story of looking for the woman her grandfather left behind, is a page turner. This is particularly commendable as readers will generally know the history of the Holocaust. The book, with its recounting of sometimes frustrating, exhausting, and contentious research efforts, ultimately is a memorial to one Holocaust victim’s fate.

Wildman’s doctor grandfather fled Austria in 1938, right after the Anschluss, along with his immediate family, while Valy, “the true love of his life,” as Wildman’s grandmother later called her, hurried back home to Czechoslovakia. Years after her grandfather’s death, American-born Wildman discovers a cache of documents labeled “Patients A-G.” It harbors Valy’s letters, full of love and, as time goes on, full of desperation. The letters end in 1941. Wildman sets out to find what happened.

Annette Gendler: What sent you on this quest to find out what happened to Valy?

Sarah Wildman: The discovery of the letters was, for me, immediately an opportunity to allow one person to narrate her story, as it was happening to her. Letters give readers a sense of what life was really like during this dark time—as it was being experienced. I wanted to use that immediacy and layer her words against my research on the restrictions that stripped her of her right to live a normal life.

AG: Why do you think it is important to some of us of the second or third Holocaust generation to piece together these stories of the past? Why this obsession to dig through archives to figure out the story of someone who’s not even a family member?

SW: This is the crux of the quest – how does the past inform our present? And our future? What do we need to know about the past to understand our identities today? For me allowing Valy to speak was incredibly important on two levels: First, the Nazi effort was to erase these voices, as well as these people, and here was this chance to upend that erasure, in some small, intimate way. Second, I knew Valy’s words were censored, but I set out to place them as much as possible in context – the restrictions, the day-to-day humiliations, the total terror of the time – so that, by immersing myself both in her world of words and her world of deprivation, I might start to understand what this period really was like, and then try to understand what it means for me. I have so often wondered who I would have been and what would have happened.

These were the words of a woman who felt so modern, so relatable, I wondered if telling her story would rescue a voice that might be a bridge to that period. You are correct – she is not a family member. The book is often called a family memoir – but in reality it is the un-family memoir. It is the family that wasn’t. The life my grandfather didn’t live, the woman he didn’t marry, so it’s not so strange to wonder who she was. Had he taken that path, I wouldn’t be here. Her very existence speaks to the tenuousness of all our lives, with or without war, and how we are here based on the choices of those who came before us, as well as geopolitical forces beyond their and our control.

AG:Your book speaks to the power of place. You went to some pains to visit places like Troppau, where Valy was from, even though you knew it would be greatly altered. Why was it so important for you to “be, simply, in Troppau, wander there, maybe run into elderly people, maybe catch some glimpse of the life of the late 1930s, navigate the city?” Why did you need to know exactly where her mother’s shoe store had been? Can’t a house be just a house?

SW: I love this question. For me this became a journey about what the French call – lieux de memoire – places of memory. I wanted to see how cities had gone on being cities, how they had swallowed up what had come before. It was like a walking archeological dig: there are layers of history in each place, and most often people have no idea at all what came before. But I wanted to see – as much as possible – what Valy and my grandfather saw as they walked out the door. If I could stand on the Ringstrasse and hear what they said to each other as the tram passed them by, on that early spring night just before the Anschluss, if I could walk into the courtyard of the Jewish Hospital in Berlin, if I could stand where she had once lived, I could feel that much more their presence. Also I wanted to see places where great trauma had taken place that were not concentration camps. There’s a moment when I realized that the last building where Valy’s mother worked in Berlin was a day care center and the children were deported while their mothers were at their factories. The image of this destroyed child-care center, on a street that is now filled with cool shops and art galleries, was unbelievably devastating for me.

AG: Paper Love also strikes me as a search for a lost culture, your grandfather’s Vienna. Do you feel, after spending so much time in the Vienna of today, that you have a better understanding of your grandfather’s world of the 1930s? Have you been able to reconcile, for yourself, your affinity for this city even though it is fraught with uncomfortable encounters, such as the still vandalized Jewish cemetery?

SW: I have often thought that what must have been most discomforting to my grandmother was not necessarily just the idea of Valy, though of course there was that, but that she could never exactly know the world from which my grandfather had come – not only because she wasn’t born there, but because so much that made vibrant Jewish Vienna so vibrant had ceased to exist after the war. Sure, there were Jews who returned, and yes, there were some Jews who remained. But the city of my grandfather’s youth had been leached of that breath and vitality that he had so thrived upon.

When I first visited Vienna, it felt so museum like, I couldn’t quite see how I would ever survive there. And then it began to open up for me; I began to love the streets, the streetcars, the difficulty. Surely, in part, the reason that I fell in love with Vienna was as much the obvious bits – the art, the Naschmarkt, the architecture, the opera – as that I had the marvelous opportunity to make friends there. With them I was able to navigate the city, and discuss its problems, in an honest way, with those who are of the third generation of Austria and Germany as well as Jews. Indeed, the night after I went to that cemetery, I went out with two close friends, and we talked well into the night. Without them the experience would have been far lonelier, and more terrifying. Strangely enough, later I realized the bar we ended up at that night was across the street from the grocery store my grandfather’s half-brother had once owned. Places of memory, everywhere.

AG: Your title, Paper Love, captures not only the trove of love letters that form the heart of the book, but also the fact that often a “small mention in [a] file […] might simply be the only evidence that a person lived at all.” Do you find it troublesome that our paperless generation won’t leave a paper trail? Nothing tangible?

SW: I have often thought that it is a shame that my children will not know the simple joy of, first, receiving a letter in the mail, and then, years later coming across that letter, and remembering who you were then, and who the letter writer was. I am of the generation that had a brief dalliance with paper and pen – when I lived in Jerusalem in college, I regularly exchanged letters with friends, all of which are still in a box in my parents’ home. I have the letters from high school, telling of loves and hates and stories all in a way a bit more conscious than we are now, in a our often disposable email world. So yes, I think we are strangely almost erasing ourselves, even in our crazy over-documented lives.

AG: Why did you choose to wrap up the book with the postwar years of your wider family, the stories of “unhappy survival,” rather than ending it with Valy?

SW: I wanted to come back, in some way, to the other people of the box, and also to the legacy of my grandfather’s previous life, and the choices they made after the war to suppress so many of their stories. I felt that to better understand their silence, you needed to see that there was a brief moment that they spoke of their pain in 1945, 1946 and then it was as if a collective decision was made to end that conversation, forever. But I wanted to know how those relationships had reconnected after an eight year silence, after the European apocalypse had taken place. For so many of them, they never had what Americans like to call “closure” – they never knew exactly what their loved ones had gone through. And that must have haunted them.

AG: After all this work, do you feel you understand your grandfather better? Or did your work, in the end, leave you with more questions that you wish you could have asked him?

SW: Honestly, both. I believe I now know far better the real man, versus the two-dimensional picture I had as his granddaughter. But I also want to know a great deal more, particularly how was he able to know what he knew, to have experienced what he had experienced, and still forever look forward, forever live with such optimism, with such joy? There is a letter towards the end of the book, written to his childhood best friend Bruno in 1986, in which he implores Bruno to live with “Entzuecken,” with delight. I love that letter. To live in the moment! How did he do that?

Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer. She has completed a memoir about the impossible love between a German and a Jew that happened twice in her family, once to fail during WWII, and once to succeed in her own life. An excerpt, “Giving Up Christmas,” was published in Tablet Magazine in December 2012. Visit her

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Paperless Love: A Letter from Valy

Friday, October 31, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarah Wildman wrote about translating letters written in Yiddish by her family and shared a short reading list and an interesting letter that didn't make it into her book,Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

It was hard for me to leave out any of the words written by Valerie Scheftel – Valy – the woman my grandfather left behind. But there were a few that didn’t fit. And Valy’s letters – as devastating as they are – sometimes, too, ranged to the mundane, just like all the letter writers of her day included the tiny things that now make up our email feeds. Life, even in deprivation, was not always worth filling up a page about.

And yet, even Valy’s shortest notes can wallop me with sadness. The following is a postcard that didn’t make it into the book in the end, even though it too carries so much. (Translation was by Ulli Wiesner.)

Postcard from Valy, Berlin, Rombergstraße 2
to KW at St. Luke's Hospital


Dearest Karl,

Today a card arrived from Uncle Isiue in which he writes that you had received a letter from me on 01-17. But you did not write to me?!?! Why not, my boy? I simply can't believe that you do not want to write. You probably already have received my letter of the 18th of this month. Nothing much has changed here for the time being. Since I have a little more free time now I work in Pathology, which I like a lot. I work with the microscope, just as you taught me, and am making good progress. Here, spring has sprung suddenly, and everything is unbelievably beautiful. One could almost be tempted to be happy and joyful. Do you remember, Karl, - the young birch trees in the Vienna Woods? Time and time again, I think of them!

What are you doing, darling in your nunnery? Do you think, you'll ever let me know anything about it? Paula's sister will hopefully leave for the USA in 14 days. Maybe you'll see her so she can give you a full report. I am afraid that I will not be able to come for a long, long time due to the quota.

All the very best to you, Karl, and many kisses from your Valy

Greetings to your mama, Zilli . My mother sends her regards as well

So short – and yet so much. Others are getting out of Berlin, even as she is stuck under the quota system that denied thousands of others a chance to cross the Atlantic.

Valy and my grandfather used to walk the Vienna Woods, the Rax Mountains, the gardens of Vienna’s Augarten. She muses on that time again and again her letters.

But I am struck by more here: Just like her memories of her time in Vienna, Valy carried that microscope wherever she went, even the Gestapo mention it in their files of her.

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 here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C.

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Paperless Love: Translating Yiddish Letters

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarah Wildman shared a short reading list and an interesting letter that didn't make it into her book, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council'sVisiting Scribe series.

I’m a little bit obsessed with letters and the way we all once lived – pen or typewriter to paper, considered missives that were sent off to our loved ones, without hope of a reply in seconds or minutes, but with a wait that spanned a day or days or weeks or months. In shoeboxes at my parents’ house I have my own collections of love stories, friendships, conversations that didn’t take place electronically. But of course, as a teen, we had the phone, which we would hold on to, for hours on end, even “long distance,” which reduced the number of letters sent, if one wasn’t ‘away,’ say, or specifically feeling romantic, nostalgic, or hard to reach.

In my grandparents’ era, with mail that arrived twice daily, the news was nearly always sent by post – be it urgent or mundane – as the phone, or telegrams, were luxuries reserved for only the most severe cases. In my collection of letters, there are hundreds of postcards that were just as likely to mention the train times, health status, or casual updates as they were to discuss the major problems of the day. Take this one – from a recently arrived cousin, dated late December 1939. “Dear Karl, Welcome! For the time being, only in writing. We should be happy to see you soon in person. Please let us know when you are coming, and when we should go to Brooklyn.”

There were dozens upon dozens of postcards in my collection written in scrawled Yiddish between my grandfather’s brother-in-law and himself. These were often almost impossible to decipher. Late in my writing of the book, I was sitting on a flight returning from Tel Aviv, surrounded by a large group of friends from Borough Park, Brooklyn. To my left was an impossibly thin woman, and to her left was her husband who spent most of the flight immersed in Pirkei Avot, the lessons of the fathers, on the other side of the aisle from me was a friend of his. Occasionally they leaned across to talk to each other, purposefully avoiding eye contact with the women.

In fact, the men ignored me entirely, until I opened my computer. Then the friend across the way peered at my screen. “You speak Yiddish?” he said, incredulously. No, I admitted. In fact I’ve been hoping to get these translated.

And suddenly a group of men became animated, discussing the translation of my letters as fervently as a tractate of Talmud. The letters, they said, were nearly a transliteration of German written into Yiddish (I suspected this). Mostly they said very little, they hoped for health, and they hoped something terrible would happen to Hitler.

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 here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C. 

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Paperless Love: A Short Reading List from Sarah Wildman

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarah Wildman shared an interesting letter that didn't make it into her book, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I set out to research the life of the woman, Valy, who wrote to my grandfather for years after he fled Vienna in the fall of 1938, I began one leg of my search by looking for other Jewish letter writers trapped in the Reich during the same time period. Two such writers – both with a tremendous body of work, mostly letters written to children – have had books published of their letters and these lingered with me long after I put them down. Both were women, and both were married to, and then divorced from, Aryan men – this meant their children had a privileged status, and also stayed in touch with them far longer than Valy was able to stay in touch with my grandfather. Their words give depth and texture to the incremental horror, a day-by-day account of what Jews were experiencing as the Nazi vise closed tighter and tighter around the community. And their voices give a crucial, and clear, eye-witness account of life in Germany during the heart of terror. At first I thought I would write more on these letters in my book; in the end, Valy’s words were so prolific, and so powerful, these books became contextual for me, rather than central.

The first is called Before Deportation: Letters from a Mother to her Daughters January 1939-December 1942. These are the collected letters of Hertha Feiner, a Berlin based schoolteacher whose two girls were spirited out of Germany to Switzerland by their non-Jewish father. Feiner’s ex-husband marries a Nazi, and though their divorce had been amicable (and not due, for example, to the pressure many mixed marriages faced to dissolve in the face of racial laws) eventually that relationship sours. Feiner’s letters to her daughters, like those of Valy, are increasingly desperate until she grasps at the one thing she believes will save her: the presence of her Aryan children. She wants them to come back to Berlin for her. It sounds insane, doesn’t it? But for a time their very existence had helped her – it gave her, as she writes them, a “special status.” They don’t return to their mother – in part because their father forbids it; in part because their school does; in part because it is unclear it would have helped. But their mother’s last letter just destroys me every time I read it. It was penned in December of 1942. “Christmas is coming, the celebration of love. Let’s hope that peace will come and all people who love one another will be reunited. ... Please be very kind to each other, and think now and then of me.”

Feiner was – like Valy and her mother – employed by the Jewish community. She was tasked with the terrible task of preparing deportation lists. She writes to her girls of the fate facing those in the Jewish community that they know, and what they are going through, their factory work, their impoverishment. Feiner was deported on March 12, 1943 to Auschwitz, but as she had been made privy to the deprivations, or worse, awaiting her, she committed suicide en route.

The second book is the one I recommend most often - My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900-1944. This book, fuller than the first, and the story is all the more devastating as Lilli’s husband divorced her during the teeth of the Nazi era, at a time when he surely knew that so-doing would be a potential death sentence for his wife. Like Valy, Lilli Jahn was a physician – as was her husband. He has an affair with another doctor, a Nazi, who convinces him to leave his wife, though Lilli and her husband had five children together.

My Wounded Heart is built around both the story of Lilli’s life and the letters she writes to her children when she is eventually incarcerated in the Bretenau labor camp at the outskirts of Kassel. (Her “crime” – beyond her Jewishness – was that she had failed to post the name “Sarah” after her own, on a shingle she hung outside her office door, advertising her medical services.) What is remarkable here is that the children’s letters themselves have also – almost in their entirety – been preserved as well, as their mother smuggled them out of the camp in 1944, before she herself was sent to Auschwitz. Before that terrible day, Lilli begs her children to implore their father to intercede on her behalf. His silence, his inaction, his cowardice is as brutal as Lilli’s fate.

This book is more than a collection of letters, it is a story of entire family, a micro story within the macro, with commentary and material built in around each letter, a means of winnowing into the tragedy of a single family.

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 here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C. 

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Paperless Love: An Unsettling Departure

Monday, October 27, 2014 | Permalink

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 here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C. She will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I am obsessed with letters. The only means of communication for so many in my grandfather’s world, his preserved letters from friends and family enabled me to tap into his experience, and that of those he left behind, when he fled Europe in the fall of 1938. But of course I couldn’t publish every letter I found – I couldn’t even begin to untangle the stories each one opened up. Yet – here in these blogging spaces – I want to go into both letters I didn’t use – the collection of my grandfather’s was so vast, and encompassed so many people it was impossible to publish them all – and those of others who allowed me to give context and color to the stories my grandfather and his friends told from 1938 through the early 1950s.

One thing that stood out early, as I read through the letters sent from 1938 through 1941 when America entered the war, was that, immediately, the idea of escape from Europe was not necessarily immediately ‘happy’ let alone an ‘ending’ – lives were still very much in the balance, and especially for those who made it only as far as another European city – Bucharest or Budapest or even Paris. In fact, even news from those who made it to Palestine doesn’t seem all that much better than those who remained in Europe. This letter, written by one of my grandfather’s closest friends, was eventually cut from the book, but highlights the anxiety of life on the run – for Jews who made it as far as China, and for Jews who made it as far as Tel Aviv:

July 22, 1939

Dear Dr. Wildman

As you probably already know, my parents have arrived in Shanghai.

While I am happy that they flew "the nest", I do worry a lot about their future. According to newspaper reports, Shanghai is again a theater of war. Hopefully, I shall be able to bring them to Erez [Yisrael] very soon.

Now I have to share some very sad news with you. I feel terrible having to write about this, but I also think it is my duty to do so. Ovenstein and Rotfeld have shed their blood for our homeland. Both lived in one of the most dangerous settlements of the country, - one of the settlements that were used to their daily "evening concert" of shots.

Ovenstein got there with an enormous plan for a harbor. The plan, in and of itself, was excellent and, and he was asked to realize the project "A Jewish fishery Harbor on Lake Tiberias." Rotfeld worked as physician in the area, cut off from the world: Water in front, 2000 m high mountains in back, and located almost outside the rightful borders of Palestine.

One evening, an ferocious Arab attack happened that, however, as usual was pushed back. During the early hours of the following morning they went to work in the fields, as though nothing had happened. They went to work for Jewish land and Jewish life.

They were attacked from an ambush. Ovenstein died on the spot, Rotfeld survived for a short while.

The country was in shock - two such important people, in Erez only for a few months, and already joined the ranks of those who fought and lost their lives for the thousands of the Jewish people, without shelter and without solace.

Willy Ritter held a stirring speech on the day they were buried.

This is the bond of Jewish reconstruction, that arose from servitude, with the will to re-build. Two have fallen, the third stands by the grave. Maybe, he, too, will be felled - maybe me, too, and maybe thousands of others.

One man falls, and the next one takes his place. An eternal bond that never shall be broken because it was forged by our iron will.

Enough for today!

Kind regards from your grateful disciple


Read more about Sarah Wildman here.

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