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.