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Box Of Love Letters Reveals Grandfather Didn't Escape WWII With 'Everyone'

Karl Wildman was the hero of his family — he escaped Vienna at the start of World War II and became a successful doctor in the United States. When Karl died, his granddaughter Sarah Wildman found a hidden trove of love letters from a woman Karl left behind in Vienna.

Her grandmother had said she'd destroyed her husband's correspondence from that time, but Wildman found the letters in a file labeled Patient Correspondence: A through G. She tells friend and NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro: "I opened it up and it was those old letters, held together with rubber bands that no longer had any snap, that would sort of dissolve in my fingers. I discovered hundreds of letters — dozens and dozens from this girl Valerie Scheftel, who was in love with him, but also from his entire exploded Viennese world."

Wildman spent years unearthing Scheftel's story. It's a mystery that travels across continents and decades. The result is a new book, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind.

Interview Highlights

On how she first learned about Scheftel

I came across, first, a folded note when I was in my early 20s. And in each quadrant of the note was a selfie — if you will — of the '30s, with a girl in each picture in a different expression and a caption. ... And I asked my grandmother ... who this was, and she said, "Oh, it was your grandfather's true love."

I knew from my grandfather's sister she'd been a student with my grandfather at the University of Vienna medical school. So her name is Valerie Scheftel — Valy — and she had come alone from Czechoslovakia to study at the University of Vienna medical school in 1931 or so and immediately fell in love with my grandfather.

Apparently he ignored her at first and then fell in love, himself, and ran to Czechoslovakia to tell her. And they had a whirlwind romance. They were supposed to escape together, but instead he escaped with his family.

It upended a story that I had been told as a child: which was that he had escaped with the essentials; everyone in his family had gotten out. And I realized, looking through this box [of letters], that this idea of the essentials and 'everyone' being his mother and sister is a child's idea of 'everyone.'

On how discovering these letters changed her understanding of her grandfather

It upended a story that I had been told as a child: which was that he had escaped with the essentials; everyone in his family had gotten out. And I realized, looking through this box [of letters], that this idea of the essentials and "everyone" being his mother and sister is a child's idea of "everyone." That's how a child thinks of the world — that your nuclear family is everyone. But this was cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, schoolmates and his lover.

On one particularly painful letter written in the spring of 1941, from Scheftel in Vienna, to Wildman, who has been in the U.S. for three years

I'll stop there, but what she's talking about — and she doesn't say, because all of her letters are censored — is, at this point, she has been pushed into these small, ghettolike apartments called Judenhauser. And, at the same time, what she doesn't know is that my grandfather in this country has been struggling as well.

Writer Sarah Wildman contributes to <em>The New York Times, The New Yorker</em> and Slate.
Kate Warren / Riverhead Books
Riverhead Books
Writer Sarah Wildman contributes to The New York Times, The New Yorker and Slate.

On why she was so committed to telling Scheftel's story

I think that what I realized at the very beginning of this project was that the Nazi experiment was not just to exterminate, but to erase — to render people literally unmemorable. And the idea that this woman, Valy, that I sort of fell in love with — her letters are gorgeous — could narrate for me her own life and whether she had survived or not survived — at the beginning, I didn't know. But I could allow her to tell us her story herself and push back against what the Nazis had done, which was to suppress her, to take away her humanity. And I thought that this was an opportunity to tell one person's story — a regular person, someone who didn't have big art, someone who you wouldn't have heard of — but someone who might have been someone you knew.

On searching for Scheftel (Note: this answer reveals some details from the book, so please skip ahead to the next highlight if you'd like to avoid all spoilers)

When I set out looking for Valy, I was looking for her alone — which was naive, because we're not atoms bouncing around the world without anyone around us. And I discovered I had to look for her community, and the path to that was discovering that someone else had come looking for her before me in the German archives in the '50s. Because Valy had married someone else in January 1943. And it was finding the woman who went in search of Valy and her husband, Hans, that led me to understand Valy's full story.

The way I did that was by placing a classified ad in old survivor newsletters. And I happened to be in London for a different project — I'm a journalist — a couple months after my ad ran, and I got an email on my last night in town saying, "Imagine my emotion, but the woman you're looking for, the woman who went in search of Valy in the '50s — that woman was her mother." The woman's name is Carol Levine. And she says, "I don't know if you're ever in London, but I have something for you." And I said, "I'm in London until tomorrow at 4, come find me!" And that morning — the next morning — she came and met me and handed me the clues to the whole rest of my story and the whole trajectory of Valy's life.

On what she wishes she could have said to her grandfather, who died before she began this book

His best revenge, in some way, was to live well. And so, I wonder if I could ask him was he able to do that. How was he able to live so big? He had a big life; he loved life. He loved to travel, he loved friends. He loved Vienna, despite everything. I want to know how he was able to tap into that joy because it's something that we could all use.

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