Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind

Riverhead  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.

Related content:


Read an excerpt from Paper Love, now available in paperback.


Read Annette Gendler's interview with Sarah Wildman here.

Read Sarah Wildman's Visiting Scribe Posts

Paperless Love: An Unsettling Departure

Paperless Love: A Short Reading List from Sarah Wildman

Paperless Love: Translating Yiddish Letters

Paperless Love: A Letter from Valy

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?

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