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.
- Young Tel Aviv: A Tale of Two Cities by Anat Helman
- The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century by David Laskin
- The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal
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.