Fateful Correspondence

Nonfiction; How a Collection of Wartime Love Letters Turned Up at a Contemporary Auction

By Elizabeth Frankenberger

Published June 30, 2006, issue of June 30, 2006.
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Paper Kisses: A True Love Story

By Reinhard Kaiser

Translated by Anthea Bell

Other Press, 120 pages, $13.95.

* * *

Like Reinhard Kaiser, the author of “Paper Kisses” — a true, epistolary tale of two star-crossed lovers during the Holocaust — my father was a collector of stamps. And like Kaiser, his hobby was his full-time passion. A lawyer by profession, Dad took official documents very seriously and, to that end, devoted himself to the accumulation and preservation of stamps — in thick leather albums with acid-free pages, some in glassine envelopes and on card mounts, all expertly labeled by date and country of origin. But I never fully grasped the notion of collecting for collecting’s sake. A canceled stamp on a piece of mail that wasn’t even addressed to the person keeping it? Where was the passion in that?

For Kaiser, it was literally in the envelopes. In 1991, Kaiser purchased a package of letters at auction, accidentally unearthing the correspondence between two characters who otherwise might have been lost to history: Rudolf Kaufmann, a German Jewish geologist, and his Swedish girlfriend, Ingeborg Magnusson. Covering the years leading up to Hitler’s Final Solution, their letters serve as an obvious yet striking reminder that beneath every stamp lies a story — one that, unlike books, is neither intended to be understood by a wide audience nor cataloged by the Library of Congress. That Kaiser took the time to introduce Rudolf and Inge to modern readers — whose primary form of written communication is likely electronic — is both rewarding and humbling.

Their story begins in 1935. Young Rudolf has just been dismissed from his post at a renowned geological institute in Germany and is seeking doctoral work in Italy. There he meets Inge, a talented linguist whose job prospects are limited given the Depression that persists in Sweden. Because both of their professional lives are in flux — and because Rudolf believes he can get on with his career back home after the tumult surrounding the election of the country’s new Reich chancellor dies down — they vow to stay in touch, and to stay faithful to each other, after their summer sojourn. Perhaps they will even marry, and have a family, in Germany. Rudolf can’t wait for the day when he and Inge “can sit perfectly still,” he writes, and “look at each other with our souls in our eyes… enjoying the feeling that we belong together.”

Sixteen months later, during which the couple had two more brief encounters, it becomes clear to Rudolf — still ineligible for university jobs, and suffering new indignities with every Nuremberg Law passed — that his life, and his love life, will never be the same again. “What will our future be like?” he asks Inge. “In times like these our love alone won’t see us through.”

It should be noted that only one of Inge’s letters made its way to the auction block and into Kaiser’s book. That readers are only given access to Rudolf’s side of the story is unfortunate, but not altogether limiting. To his credit, Kaiser keeps his own voice down and lets Inge’s silence speak for itself. The effect is extraordinary and haunting. Ever the meticulous collector, Kaiser knows that an objet d’art gains more value the less it has been touched. And so he offers just the right amount of background information about the characters to add authenticity, and suspense, to the narrative while leaving us with enough space to read between the lines.

Except for when we need it the most. For reasons that this reader cannot calculate, Kaiser chooses not to elaborate on, and in fact only allocates a sentence to, one crucial detail about Rudolf’s identity: Although born to a Jewish mother, he is actually a practicing evangelical Christian. “I felt as German as my comrades,” Rudolf writes. “At heart, I didn’t feel [the Jews] had anything to do with me. My problems were with rocks, nature, sport, art, sometimes women, but never the fate of a great many people.” Until, that is, he met Inge and realized that “anti-Semitism is a fact, and it travels the world along with the emigrants. Sooner or later it turns up everywhere.” Including Lithuania, where Rudolf eventually flees for safety, all the while hoping –– in vain –– that he and his beloved can be together again. “Oh, Inge,” he pleads. “Why does a human being have to be pigeonholed at the moment of birth?”

That’s the question that Kaiser might have attempted to answer to increase the value, and veracity, of his hero’s story. By not discussing Rudolf’s evangelicalism, the author misses the chance to delve into the greater themes about the arbitrary nature of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews — that it had less to do with religious identification than the simple, tragic fact of one’s bloodline — and the book ends on a contradictory note. The expert philatelist in Kaiser might have wanted to let the rare, untarnished beauty of the letters shine through in “Paper Kisses.” Still, I can’t help but think that my father would have preferred to see — as I do — not only the original documents, with all their official Nazi insignia, but also the factual evidence with which to substantiate the story.

Elizabeth Frankenberger is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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