After internalizing her grandfather’s tale of his lucky escape from pre-Holocaust Vienna, Sarah Wildman discovered something that upended her own family’s tidy history as she had so far understood it.
It was a love letter to her grandfather from a woman whose name, Valy, she had never heard.
In October, Riverhead published her account of the search for Valy, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. She calls the book her “un-family memoir.”
On Sunday morning, Dec. 14, Wildman will speak at Congregation Beth El in South Orange. In advance of the talk, which is free and open to the public, she spoke with NJJN about her search for Valy, genealogy, and the reverberations of the Holocaust through the generations.
Wildman is a journalist whose writings on politics, memory, and history in Europe and America have appeared in, among other publications, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Slate Magazine.
A resident of Washington, DC, she grew up in Short Hills and became a bat mitzva at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn. Her family then joined Beth El, where her parents are still members and where her father, Dr. Joe Wildman, frequently reads Torah.
Her grandfather and his immediate family escaped from Vienna after the Anschluss when he was a young man. He came to the United States, built a new life, and married the woman who would become Wildman’s grandmother.
Although books on the Holocaust are plentiful, Wildman believes individual accounts are critical to our understanding of the Holocaust, and that time is running out for them. “I think this book highlights that you can look at documents and letters and even walk the geography of a place, but in the end, it is finding eyewitnesses that provides essential information.”
Pointing out that books being published now are among the last that will include survivors’ accounts, she asked a bigger question: “What will tether us to this material when survivors are no longer sitting around the table?”
Paper Love is not a straightforward retelling of Valy’s story. Instead, Wildman’s own search for her grandfather’s past — for her own history — is layered over the trajectory of Valy’s life. As Wildman uncovers it piece by piece, she shares the process with her readers, including her reading and rereading of Valy’s letters to her grandfather and the emotions the search elicits in her. She also comments on some of the strange juxtapositions that arise from the 65 years that separate Wildman from her subject.
Delving into Valy’s life, retracing her steps, has given Wildman the opportunity to explore a question she has long considered.
“I think I have always wondered who I would have been had I lived then,” she said. “What about the Jews who were regular people like us? They may have been intelligent, educated. But they left no specific mark, other than having been lost.”
Paper Love is in some ways her own love letter to Valy, a way to ensure she is not forgotten. It’s a way to steal a small victory from the Nazis “because the Nazi idea was to not just exterminate the Jews, but to erase them,” she said.
“It’s the story of the life my grandfather didn’t live, the life he did not choose. He remained alive,” she said, because of that choice.
To Wildman, Valy’s is simultaneously an individual Holocaust story and a universal story of discrimination and family disruption. “It is about the Jewish European apocalypse of the 20th century, but it is also about how we should think upon other families whose narratives are being upended right now,” she said, pointing to Syrian refugees and child immigrants to the United States. “It’s a way of preserving the intensity of the Holocaust without making it only a story of a woman whose life was destroyed because she was Jewish.”
On undertaking this kind of genealogical search, Wildman said, “Anybody can take this on. It’s really about getting past the narrative we think we know and realizing we might not know what questions to ask. That’s the most humbling part. I believed in the primacy of the narrative I’d been taught.
“The questions are not obvious and sometimes you to have to go back again and again to the same source,” she said.
And as the grandchild of survivors, Wildman believes she can ask questions others could not. “This is a third-generation story. The second generation abided by a pact of silence. Now they say, ‘Why didn’t we ask these questions?’ but it was impressed upon them not to. Now we have enough distance that we can ask without feeling like we are dipping into a wound.
“And it may be the last opportunity we have to do so,” she said.