A journalist’s account of how her attempts to learn about her grandfather’s lost “true love” turned into a quest to understand the place of the Holocaust in her life and the lives of other young Jews.
Former New Republic staffer Wildman grew up surrounded by stories about her grandfather Karl’s charmed existence. He had been one of the lucky Jews able to escape Vienna with both his life and professional credentials intact not long after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. But when the author found photos of an unknown woman in a family album, her grandmother revealed that Karl had once been profoundly in love with a girl named Valy, whom he’d reluctantly had to leave behind. Many years later, after stumbling across letters that her grandmother had somehow overlooked in her destructive mission to preserve the myth of Karl’s “spotless escape,” Wildman began to put together the story behind Karl and Valy’s relationship. Hungry for details, she traveled to Vienna and, later, Germany and the Czech Republic, where she researched Valy’s life and visited the places that bore her imprint. The author concluded that both Karl and his lover had borne burdens of sorrow, guilt and loneliness far greater than anyone had known. At the same time, she also uncovered a worldwide network of people outside her family whose lives had been touched by not only Valy and Karl, but by Nazi terrorism. Wildman realized that history had been served to her, and the members of her generation, in ways that were far too “sanitized” and “clean.” This profound book derives its power not so much from the love story at its heart, but from the historical urgency with which Wildman infuses it. The author makes clear that only by engaging with inherited past trauma deeply and fully can individuals and communities begin the long and difficult process of looking for ways to regain wholeness.
A poignant and humane memoir.