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Local journalist Sarah Wildman’s first book, Paper Love, is a moving, heartrending fusion of memoir and biography. It tells the story of Valy Scheftel, the first love of Wildman’s grandfather, who made the fatal mistake of remaining in pre-World War Two Europe when Wildman’s grandfather fled to the United States. Valy was ultimately killed by the Nazis. Paper Love is about the search for family stories and secrets, accepting non-closure in the stories of Jews who perished, and myths we tell ourselves in order to survive. Wildman spoke with Arts Desk about imagining a heroic escape from the Holocaust and the Nazi’s meticulous record-keeping.
WCP: You wrote about Valy in a series for Slate in 2009. When did you know you had a book?
From the very beginning I thought there might be a book. Actually, let me go back a little further. When my grandmother first told me she destroyed [my grandfather’s] correspondence, and I had this hubris of being 21 or 22 years old. I was like “But what if there was a book there!” I had these grandiose thoughts even if I wasn’t at all remotely conscious of what it would mean.
The hardest bit for me, in a weird way, was allowing myself to tap into the ways in which this affected me personally and emotionally. This felt very difficult to do, both because I didn’t want it to sound false but at the same time it became so raw that it became a vulnerable experience. In some ways I’m a character too, but you don’t want it to be too intrusive, too present. That was a big question for me for a long time—-how much of a role do I play?
Was there a turning point when you became okay with being a character in the book?
It took me through at least the first draft and a half of the book to add more [of me]. I was constantly told by my readers: give me more here, give me more reaction here, what were you feeling here, what did it feel like when you found this, what was happening for you. I had kept journals throughout everything, so I had a lot of my reaction, and I was able to put that into it. But I didn’t want to set up any one-to-one comparison between [Holocaust victims and survivors] and myself. But at the same time, I don’t think the experience of falling in love or feeling rejected is new. And I somehow felt that I understood how [Valy] felt in those respects. I very much related to her. In some ways, she was a regular person: She was well-educated, she was obsessed with her professional life, and she wasn’t entirely sure, I suspect, that she wanted to marry at 26. In some ways it took away the distancing we have between ourselves and Holocaust survivors, and it became much more about what happened to regular people, what happened to someone who you might have known.
One thing that kept coming up in the book was this feeling of guilt about being an American. Some people accuse American Jews like you of being “vultures” for trying to capture all these stories. What’s your relationship to these accusations now?
Just because I want to know your story doesn’t mean you are required to tell it to me. There’s no question that all of us born after the war have an enormous amount of privilege. There’s this sense that of course we need to know these stories because they’re going to disappear, which is true, but the emotional impact of telling them again and again is not something that everybody wants to live through.
I think one of the things that happens a lot with these Holocaust narratives is people very much want to cry and they really want to feel it, and I understand that. I think that you feel in some way obligated to feel it in as deep a way as possible. But to do that, you take something from someone. It’s a very draining experience to hear from someone who has lost everything. But it’s an even more brutal and draining experience to tell it. I’ve learned that I’m asking for something that’s often quite painful and that I don’t necessarily deserve to get it. And if I don’t get it, then that’s okay. Then I’m just not entitled to that person’s story.
Both the Soviet and Nazi regimes meticulously documented the horrible things that they did. What do you think was the logic behind this careful documentation?
The biggest conundrum about this to me is something that I say at the beginning [of the book], which is that the Nazi project is not just to terminate, it’s also to erase. They want to destroy everything personal so that no one is remembered. Then why do you make sure you have documentation and a list for every single thing if you want to erase their presence?
Weirdly, this allows us so much more access to these materials, and what’s very strange is that when I tried to do a little more research on my grandfather’s time in the [U.S.] Army, I got this note saying “sorry, all those documents were burned in St. Louis in 1973.” It’s completely bizarre that here’s this person who had a long military service and won these awards and there’s nothing. Whereas with Valy and her mother, it took me a while to track it down, but they have every piece of correspondence between them and the Nazi state. They list every item left in their home as they’re preparing to strip them of everything.
At one point, you say that Valy “should” have survived. Later in the book, you say that even the basic things that Valy needed to do to get out of Europe after 1941 were in themselves “heroic” and “improbable.” When did you start to think that you were looking for how she was killed instead of how she survived?
When I was a kid, my question was constantly how would I have survived? What would have been my heroic escape? And I think the process of the book was discovering that heroic escape was the most improbable and unlikely scenario. The norm is not surviving. That’s something that’s so brutal and difficult. Even though I’d done this research, I still held onto these iconic images. Part of it was just that I wanted to believe her story and that there was something possible there. In some respects it would be almost easier that she survived and that things just didn’t work out with my grandfather then that she died waiting for him.
Your book is dedicated to the “two little Jews who grew,” your daughters with whom you were pregnant during the various stages of this project. It almost feels like a form of resistance, as if you’re saying that the Nazis took Jews away from this world and that you’re bringing Jews back into it. So how are “the two little Jews who grew” now?
First of all, they’re awesome. Orli is now 5 and three quarters—-she will tell you very proudly that she’s not just 5 and a half—-and Hana is 16 months. I do think it’s a form of resistance. I did think it was completely a crazy experience, much more than I would have realized, to be pregnant and know I would be raising Jews while working on this story. I say in the acknowledgments that they kept me looking forward. It’s very hard not to feel sad all the time, and you can’t do that with little kids—-you just can’t. It’s not really fair. And so in many ways they kept me focused on what my grandfather would have wanted me to stay focused on, which is the experience of being with them and not only being mired in the loss. My only regret is that they didn’t get to meet him, because I can’t think of anything he would have loved more than to know they were here. There’s nothing that makes me more conscious of the privilege of having them than doing this book.
Sarah Wildman will be speak at Kramerbooks on Nov. 18.
Photo by Kate Warren