The Girlfriend He Left in Vienna
In my parents’ basement I found a box of my grandfather’s, marked “C.J. Wildman, personal”; inside it I discovered another, smaller file box labeled “Patient Correspondence, A–G.” The letters were not from patients; they were from the life he left behind in Vienna when he fled the Nazis: half-siblings, cousins, friends — and a girlfriend.
Among them I found a flier advertising a debate: “How To Get to Palestine Without Money,” it said in bold German typeface. “A lecture about the political and economic possibilities of resettlement of Jews without capital. Speaker: Chaim Wildmann” — his friends called him Karl — and then, at the bottom: “Managing editor/publisher: Valerie Scheftel.” This was Valy, his lover at the time. Her letters, mailed mostly from Berlin, crowded the box of patient correspondence. They became increasingly desperate as 1939 became 1940 and as 1940 turned to 1941. But this flier preceded all that. It was dated June 1933; they were both 21, students at the University of Vienna, in medicine. It was five full years before Karl boarded a ship to the United States, leaving her behind.
Nowhere is Vienna more idealized than in Valy’s letters. “Unfortunately, I don’t have much good to tell you about my work right now,” she writes in late spring 1941*. “A couple of days ago, alas, I returned from the course I had written to you about. It was quite wonderful! Full of youth, spirit and verve! For the first time, since Vienna, I again felt glad and young.” …*
Vienna, for Valy, the longer she stays in Berlin, becomes as much a symbol of freedom and life as my grandfather himself. She is a faithful recorder of her time in the city. She writes on it, muses on it, returns to it again and again. She and my grandfather, she writes, spent an “unspeakably beautiful” summer together in the Mediterranean-like warmth of Lake Wörthersee, in Carinthia, near the camp for Zionist Jews, swimming alongside the athletes of [the Jewish sports club] Hakoah of Vienna, the superstar sportsmen and women of the era, the best swimmers in Europe. In the winter, they dance at the Medizinerredoute, the medical students’ formal ball. They debate how they can be together with no money; it is one thing to travel as students, it is another to live, forever, impoverished. One day, as they walk in the gardens of the Augarten, my grandfather tells her that she should marry. She doesn’t understand what he means — to him? To anyone? Is it to pull her back from her mother, who waits for her in Czechoslovakia? Is it to keep her from focusing only on her work? She wants to know what he meant; she doesn’t ask.
The night after she graduates from medical school, they stand on the Ringstrasse, the grand Viennese circular boulevard with its enormous mansions. They are on the stretch of the Ring near Parliament, diagonally across from the lights of stately Café Landtmann. They stand there and discuss the future. I have been on the Ring dozens upon dozens of times, crammed onto trams, talking with friends, walking late at night when the weather turns warm. It is much the same as it was then, and I can see Karl and Valy there, beneath the glorious statues of the parliament, the imposing marble, alongside the electric streetcars with their peculiar distinctive smell of sweat and wood, I can hear the strange way the tram creaks and bends, like an arthritic elbow, the Austrian-accented nasal German of the recorded station-stop announcements, Stadiongasse/Parlament, Rathausplatz, Schottentor.
They stand there together, basking in the glory of her degree, and she catches her breath, she has something important to say, she musters her courage: she wants to ask him to stay with her, to be with her, to marry her, to have a life together. But then she doesn’t say any of that; she hesitates. The moment passes. She loses her chance.
Four days later [on March 12, 1938] Hitler annexes the country, and crowds fill Vienna’s Heldenplatz, a pulsating mob with hands held high, palm out. Swastikas fill the city, overnight — there is a run on the flag, there aren’t enough to go around.
The crackdown begins immediately. Jews are forced to scrub the streets; the local newspapers run headlines, “Are we German? YES!” They can no longer sit on benches; they can no longer enter parks. My grandfather joins the endless lines searching for visas, he writes to cousins for an affidavit. Does he try for Valy, too? Does she want him to? “Not all of you have to go!” an acquaintance tells my Aunt Cilli. She scoffs. She says she knew they all must leave.
Violence tilts the city. Jewish stores are sacked. The wealthy students my grandfather tutored are looted; their fathers are arrested and sent to [the concentration camp] Dachau. Some don’t return. Jews are paraded for humiliation. My grandfather pins a Polish eagle to his cap and pretends to be a Pole. He can speak just enough Polish to render his disguise believable. Where did all these Nazis come from? Five years of what had been incrementally imposed anti-Jewish legislation in Germany was put in place in Austria all at once, in a matter of weeks. Restrictive measures were only part of the mortification of the community: the Nazis quickly began to confiscate Jewish property and art, shipping it all immediately into the Altreich, the heart of Germany, businesses are “aryanized,” taken over by racially pure business owners.
And as my grandfather knocks on doors and cuts the lines at the consulates, Valy takes the train three hours northeast to Troppau, Czechoslovakia, leaving behind her adopted city, and her lover. She can’t abandon her mother, in another town, another country. Even if he’d asked. And it does not appear he asked. Plus — at first —returning home was an escape. Czechoslovakia was not yet occupied, was ostensibly out of immediate danger.…
Valy began to write to him from the moment he set foot on the boat — first from her mother’s, and later from Berlin [where she moved to find work].
You should know that I bought myself a flute because I am always so dreadfully lonesome.…
And I am practicing an awful lot so I will be able to play really well once you and I are reunited again.…
She dreams of everything they shared, a dream that she nourishes as the world around her becomes increasingly nightmarish and the past becomes the only sharp, clear, beautiful thing she can think of:
I live through all the different phases of our being together. Do you remember? The Friday nights. When we went to your Mama’s house. All the other evenings in your place. Everything you did. Do you remember? Talking. How can we without money…? Skiing classes…. The different relationships between us we lived, together…. And this time cannot be over yet darling. I beg you… . tell me. That this cannot be. It is impossible don’t you agree? It cannot be….
I show these letters to friends in Vienna and Berlin. One friend tells me they are too personal to translate.…
Even more than emigration, Valy just wants the past to no longer be past. She meanders for pages, she reminds him of the poetry they read together, the books they debated. “ … Once, many years ago, we were walking through the Prater, it was in October, and you recited the Oktoberlied for me, talking about the overcast day which we wanted to make golden…. We were so happy then, or, at least, I was. With you, I never was quite sure how things were.”
I am struck, seventy years on, by the poignancy of that insecurity. My grandfather was in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, by the time she wrote those lines. It was fall 1941. By then his medical practice had been open a year, he was settling into his new life, he was dating my smart, pretty grandmother who had gone to Smith College and then transferred — it was still the Depression, after all, and Smith was pricey — to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She was the daughter of Jewish immigrants (one Russian, one Latvian) who made a solid living selling wallpaper and paint. Her mother had been a businesswoman in her own right, as a fashion buyer in her early twenties; in all, the Kolmans were a very American, quiet-success story.
In Berlin, in the meantime, Valy was entirely living in the past, comforted only by a phantom version of Karl, a shadow version of their relationship that had long since become as one-dimensional as his photograph.
I discuss all this with Herbert Posch [a professor at the University of Vienna who researches those who were expelled from the university by the Nazis] — the life my grandfather created, the life he left behind, the eventual American wife, the girlfriend, the lies, the omissions, the sadness — and he listens, quietly. I wonder aloud about what he told my grandmother, and what he knew about where Valy was during the war, and after it. I raise for him the questions that have been consuming me — about my grandfather’s lovers, about his guilt, or his lack of guilt.
I tell him that as a teen I made a pilgrimage with my parents to my grandfather’s former home, Rueppgasse 27, a street that, to my seventeen-year-old eyes, seemed gray and uninteresting: poor. We took the train from Munich to Vienna on that trip — schlepping a million bags from train to train. I remember thinking, I say, How odd, how disturbing, to be asked for papers and passports in German. In Vienna, my father went to the bank, to withdraw money. My grandfather, I learned only then, had squirreled away money outside America, should he need to flee again. This was a bewildering thought — Karl had not been sure enough of the United States to entrust our banks with all of what he earned. Instead, he opened accounts in Switzerland, perhaps also elsewhere, in the event that he was once again a refugee, he could enable the family to start over. Not only that — he had also secured a passport for my father when he was born, so the family could make a quick exit if they needed to — little Joseph Wildman is held up in his passport photo by my grandmother. The knowledge altered something for me, even then, opened up questions I hadn’t known to ask before…. He hadn’t believed in his success as much as I’d thought.
I suspect Posch is used to this. He gets these same navel-gazing musings from all the others like me who have come to see him, all of us on a pilgrimage to a messenger rather than to a place.
Posch invites me to visit the tiny former synagogue on the medical school campus that is now a memorial site called Marpe Lanefesh — “healing of the soul.” For years it stood dormant, decaying, after it was forcibly decommissioned in 1938. By the 1970s, he tells me, no one remembered it had been a synagogue; it briefly became a transformer station, an electricity hub, a center for switches. But a researcher of the architect Max Fleischer, a prolific synagogue designer of the turn of the last century whose work had been entirely destroyed [during the anti-Jewish pogroms]on Kristallnacht, wondered if, perhaps, the little octagon opposite the campus insane asylum (really) was actually a synagogue. In 2005, a Bulgarian artist — Minna Antova— created the memorial; in it she literally layered the history, placing three glass floors above each other, the first layer a magnification of the 1903 architectural plans of Fleischer; the next a series of words, a Nazi text calling for the destruction of Jewish holy sites on Kristallnacht; and the top a sketch of the electrical plan of the building. Visitors must don gray felt clogs to walk on the glass so as not to scratch it; the roof was replaced with a glass cupola so Marpe Lanefesh, even on the gloomiest of days, is filled with light. The feeling is not so much of a synagogue, but of a breathing memory.
In fact, says Posch, it is one of only two standing synagogue structures left in Vienna, though this one is not a functioning chapel. The other is on Seitenstettengasse; that one is gilt and lush, with a soaring ceiling painted like a starry sky and endless names of the dead on the wall, most of whom were killed in the Shoah. All of the other synagogues of Vienna were destroyed on Kristallnacht [on November 9, 1938].
By that terrible night, neither Valy nor my grandfather remained in Vienna. On Kristallnacht, my grandfather was in New York. Valy was preparing to leave Troppau for Berlin. From her letters, I knew it was Berlin where Valy had experienced all of the horror and deprivation that would characterize the ensuing years.
Knowing this, I wondered if the key to finding Valy wasn’t in Vienna at all, but Germany itself. I dreamt of finding answers, of understanding some essential truth about her time there, of finding a clue to whether she might have lived through it all; and where she might be now.
“Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind” comes out October 30. This excerpt was reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
Sarah Wildman is an award-winning journalist and a contributing editor at the Forward.