It began with a photo. “Your Valy,” penned on the back. Sarah Wildman had seen her grandfather Karl’s European life in pictures—the life before he fled the Nazi uprising and came to America—many times before, but never had she seen Valy. The photo was taken during a time of peace, before he left everything, and almost everyone, he’d known. He looked so happy cozied up next to her, this mystery woman. But who was she?
Curious, Wildman asked her grandmother. “Your grandfather’s true love,” she replied, refusing further comment. The very notion rocked Wildman to her core. She’d grown up with her grandfather’s stories, and as a third-generation American, still felt deeply connected to his experiences stateside. “I’m very defined by this history,” she admits. “I grew up very conscious of this idea that I’m an accidental American, as so many people are.” Her own identity is something she confronts often throughout Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind, a project that ultimately took eight years, countless interviews, and various trips to Holocaust archives around the world.
The more she discovered about Valy, the further her grandfather’s past unraveled. He had not escaped Europe unscathed, as she’d often been told, nor had his transition to America been flawless. In fact, it had been a tremendous struggle for Karl, powerless to help Valy or others who wrote him begging for money or affidavits to secure passage to America. “Writing this was a unique and precious opportunity to know my grandfather as a person as opposed to the myth. It made him a lot more flawed, but a lot more human, and I have even more admiration for him for choosing to live the way he lived and not be mired in his past. He knew he didn’t have the means to help the way people wanted him to. I think he may have held on to that inability for a very long time.”
Wildman admits the love story captured her attention in the beginning, but, “throughout my adult life I have been obsessed with the idea: What happened during World War II to the normal people with regular lives? In her letters, Valy is as obsessed with her career as she is with survival. She feels very modern, like someone you could know,” Wildman says. “Tapping into this idea of what happened to a normal person when the apocalypse of the 20th century occurs was a way to connect to the era in a way I hadn’t had before.”
The more Wildman researched, the more she discovered other untold tales, which is partially why the book took so long to complete. “Once you enter into this territory—the second World War, the Holocaust—you feel like you could read forever and never start writing,” she says. One discovery was how many of the common citizens who disappeared left no story behind. Wildman explains how a large number of Jews who were not shipped to extermination or concentration camps were forced to scour the materials of those who were deported, and burn all their personal items like journals or photos. Discovering anything about those lost, therefore, is often improbable, if not impossible, which is what makes Valy and Karl’s story, and its documentation, more remarkable. “The idea of the Nazi experiment was not just to exterminate but to erase,” Wildman says. “I hoped in writing this book I could undo that in some way, un-erase someone and tell a story that was purposefully not told.”
This story, however, is as much about the present and future as it is about uncovering the past. Toward the end of the book, Wildman poses these question to readers, “Do [my daughters] need these stories too? How can we impart this history without the burden?” The question concludes the chapter, followed immediately by a blank space waiting to be filled. Though an answer may be elusive, stories like Valy and Karl’s are helping to build one, to continue to form a larger narrative.
“Through the process of working on this book I’ve come to know so many of my counterparts in Germany. Learning about other people’s experiences through journals, diaries, letters, etc. has shown me their place in the greater story about how we understand this time period,” she says. “This book, in part, is about what’s next. What will we do when we have no more eyewitnesses? Stories like Valy and Karl’s will be the eyewitnesses going forward when all the survivors are gone.”Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter.