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.
Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright ©2015 by Sarah Wildman.
Sarah Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for The New York Times, Slate, and The New Yorker, among other places; she is a former New Republic staffer. She is the recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Prize from the German Marshall Fund “for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the transatlantic relationship” for the series in Slate where Paper Love originated. She lives in Washington, DC.