Thursday, May 18, 2017

Sarah Wildman. Paper Love. Paper Trails to the Past (A Reading Jag)

Recently I've been reading a lot of books that center around someone's discovery of a cache of papers (or film) that reveals a secret history of a family member during World War II.  The best of these "look back" "memoirs was probably In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi which I wrote about earlier. Another fascinating book is Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind, by Sarah Wildman

Wildman discovers a cache of letters that belonged to her grandfather Karl Wildman. The letters were notable, first because Sarah thought all her grandfather's personal papers had been destroyed, and second because the letters were from a German woman named Valerie (Valy) Scheftel.  Valy was the woman Karl left behind when his family emigrated to the US, shortly after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938.  Only Valy's letters remain, but it appears that during the course of the correspondence, Karl promised to love Valy and to help her escape.  As the years went by, the correspondence became more despearate as Valy's circumstances worsened.  Sarah Wildman sets out to discover as much as she can about Valy and, she hopes her grandfather, who--by the end of the war had married an American woman and began a medical practice in the United States.  Sarah Wildman is quite emphatic about how her grandfather's resources were limited--financially (little money and many relatives to support) and logistically (the difficulty of getting exit permits from Germany and entry permits from the US).  However, it is Valy with whom Sarah was becomes fascinated.  And the book becomes the attempt to find out what happened to her.

Sarah Waldman writes for where parts of the book are published.  Thus she has resources the amateur genealogist lacks.  Sarah travels to archives and museums in Europe and the US and visits relatives of people who knew Valy.  She is able to get documents translated and to visit sites in Valy's life.  The book records to an amazingly detailed degree Valy's life, particularly in the years between 1938 and January 29, 1942 when she was deported to Auschwitz and eventually murdered.  Sarah can, in fact, trace her to the very train that carried Valy to the death camp, where the record ends. That is, it's not clear whether she was immediately selected for deathh or died sometime later in the camp.

During the course of her research, an important museum at Bad Arolson is finally opened to researchers.  It includes lists of names and was initially a sort of clearing house by which people could trace the fate of relatives.  As Sarah begins looking at Bad Arolson for traces of Valy, she speaks to one of the major archivists who tells her "It's not a Holy Grail.. . . but it will change the direction of research.  "It's not revolutionary--it's not like Hitler's order to kill the Jews. . . .  [I]t will become a place of instituionalized memory" (106).  Later, he explains that "a list of names takes on a different meaning when it is observed through the eyes of a researcher or someone who knows the history, or through the eyes of someone who wants to understand the dynamics among populations, or what brought survival rather than death" (110).   In other wourds, the "lists of names," the "raw data" must be organized, arranged, and interpreted.  Thus history becomes not simply a set of names or places but a narrative.

In particular, Sarah asks whether the kind of small history she wants to write is important.  "Are small stories important?"  "Yes," the historian immediately answers: "As historians we can describe what happened, Where it happened.  But we can't exactly describe why it happened.  [Or as a historical narratologist would say, we need chronicle and plot, a story and discourse.]. The historian cannot describe the suffering of the individuals.  Therefore, we need  the memorials.  We need the letters, the diaries, the the memories of the individuals,  As the main part of the picture of what happened" (94).

In reading this book, one participates in Sarah's search.  It is a book that I found hard to put down because, like Sarah Wildman, I desperately wanted to know what happened to Valy

(More on my reading jag to come).



Susan Griffin said...

Then there are the novels that center around an object that takes us through the generations by Nicole Krauss, Donna Tartt, etc.

Debra Journet said...

For some reason this kind of narrative swerve really fascinates me. It's a little bit (for me of course) like "discovering" Budapest.

Cindy Selfe said...


Sounds like a terrific read! I'm picking it up!