Paper Love: Search­ing for the Girl My Grand­fa­ther Left Behind

By – October 27, 2014

Sarah Wild­man, a reporter and Euro­pean cor­re­spon­dent for The New York Times, Slate, The New York­er, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, has giv­en us an ele­gant­ly writ­ten sto­ry that uses the life of med­ical doc­tor Valerie (Valy) Fabisch and her moth­er to illus­trate the fate of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ger­man, Aus­tri­an, and Czech Jews who were trapped in Nazi-occu­pied Cen­tral Europe and even­tu­al­ly deport­ed to exter­mi­na­tion camps in Poland.

Many years after the death of her pater­nal grand­fa­ther, Dr. Karl Wild­man — a Vien­nese Jew­ish med­ical doc­tor — who was able to escape from Aus­tria and find sanc­tu­ary in Pitts­field, MA before the depor­ta­tions of Jews began, the author dis­cov­ered a cache of love let­ters between Valy and her grand­fa­ther that span the peri­od from Sep­tem­ber 1938 until ear­ly Decem­ber 1941. While Karl, his moth­er, sis­ter, broth­er-in-law and nephew were able to flee Vien­na before Kristall­nacht, Valy, Kar­l’s lover and for­mer class­mate at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na Med­ical School, chose to return to Czecho­slo­va­kia, which soon became a trap as Ger­man troops crossed the fron­tier and annexed the Sude­ten­land, where Valy lived with her moth­er. Des­per­ate to reach the Unit­ed States, Valy reached out to Karl, who was des­per­ate­ly poor and depen­dant on Jew­ish refugee orga­ni­za­tions for food and shel­ter and, lat­er, loans to per­mit him to open a med­ical prac­tice in Pittsfield.

Valy’s let­ters are a cry from the heart. Still deeply in love with Karl despite their sep­a­ra­tion, she wrote him reg­u­lar­ly, only to wait months for a reply. Obsessed with Valy’s sto­ry, Wild­man began a search that last­ed years and took her to archives and research insti­tu­tions in Ger­many, Israel, Czecho­slo­va­kia, Poland, Eng­land, and the U.S., bring­ing into con­tact with lead­ing spe­cial­ists around the world. Through­out the book one con­stant­ly hopes that Valy some­how sur­vives arrest and depor­ta­tion to Auschwitz.

Carl J. Rheins was the exec­u­tive direc­tor emer­i­tus of the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research. He received his Ph.D. in Mod­ern Euro­pean His­to­ry from the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Stony Brook and taught cours­es on the Holo­caust at sev­er­al major universities.

Discussion Questions

1. The idea of love plays a large role in the book. What do you think Dorothy, Sarah Wildman’s grand­moth­er, meant when she said Valy was Karl’s true love”? Does the idea of that love change as the book pro­gress­es? In what way? What oth­er ties link the peo­ple who Sarah Wild­man writes about? How are they dif­fer­ent forms of love?

2. Paper Love res­cues one woman’s life from being lost to his­to­ry. How is this approach to his­to­ry dif­fer­ent from a more broad overview of the time peri­od? How does it change your own under­stand­ing of his­to­ry? Why is it impor­tant to tell people’s stories?

3. A sig­nif­i­cant theme in the book is Sarah Wildman’s effort to under­stand her grand­fa­ther as a man and not as the larg­er-than-life fig­ure of her child­hood. How does she go about doing so? How do her own jour­neys mir­ror those of her grandfather?

4. What do you think Wild­man means when she says she is an arbi­trary” Amer­i­can? How do the choic­es of those who came before us — par­ents, grand­par­ents — influ­ence the way our lives play out decades later?

5. What do you think of Valy’s choice to remain in Europe? Do you think she could have gone with Karl? Do you think he asked her to go? Or do you think she felt too faith­ful to her moth­er to flee with him? What do her choic­es say about the role of daugh­ters dur­ing the time? And how do they con­nect with how we live today?

6. Valy is in some ways an incred­i­bly mod­ern woman — she leaves her home coun­try to study in a for­eign city, alone, and she is as ded­i­cat­ed to her career as many pro­fes­sion­als today. Was this a sur­prise to learn of women in the 1930s and ear­ly 1940s behav­ing in this way? In what oth­er ways does she seem mod­ern? And in what ways does her expe­ri­ence feel for­eign, or more old-fash­ioned, than ours?

7. Were you sur­prised that Valy choos­es to trav­el into the Reich rather than seek to flee Europe from Czecho­slo­va­kia? How does Valy’s anonymi­ty help her in Berlin? And how does it impact her fate?

8. Dur­ing the years that Valy lives in Berlin — 1939 through 1943 — restric­tions on life for Jews become more and more ardu­ous as time goes on. How do these restric­tions serve the Nazis? How do they affect the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty? What goal did the Nazis have in tak­ing away some­thing like, for exam­ple, the right to resole shoes, or to buy eggs? What does this say about the Nazi rela­tion­ship to the Jews? We often think of exter­mi­na­tion as being the Nazi objec­tive. What oth­er goals seem to have been part of the Nazi plan?

9. Karl’s efforts in the Unit­ed States on behalf of Valy and her moth­er are most­ly unknown — but there are clues that he did try to buy visas for them. What pre­vent­ed him from secur­ing them soon­er? Was it sur­pris­ing to learn of Karl’s expe­ri­ence on these shores? Was mon­ey the only problem?

10. Sarah Wild­man dis­cov­ers that some­one else had come look­ing for Valy in the Ger­man archives in the 1950s. Were the means of search­ing after the war in some ways more effec­tive than our meth­ods now? Why does she need to turn to such an anti­quat­ed method of search­ing to find out who came before her? What does it say about about how reliant we have become on mod­ern technologies?

11. Do you think Sarah Wildman’s grand­fa­ther felt guilty? What do you think he felt when he received Valy’s let­ters? Why did he not respond more quick­ly, or more often?

12. Sarah Wild­man grew up think­ing that every­one” had got­ten out, but this was a fic­tion. What does Karl’s col­lec­tion reveal about the mean­ing of every­one”? Can you pic­ture the peo­ple who pop­u­late your own life? What cir­cles would you take with you? What would hap­pen if the only peo­ple you could take are your nuclear fam­i­ly? Who would be missing?