Sarah Wildman knew her grandfather, Karl, escaped from Vienna on the eve of the Nazi occupation. One day after his death, however, she discovered a box of letters and photographs hinting that there might be another, truer version of his story, one that included a girl nicknamed "Valy."
Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind is a Holocaust memoir, a survivor's tale and a detective story all at once. After reading the letters and seeing Valy's smiling face in the photos, Wildman is determined to find out the fate of this mysterious Jewish woman her grandmother referred to bitterly as her husband's "first love." Her search takes her from Czechoslovakia to Berlin and deep into the maze of bureaucracy that traces those scattered by war. In an increasingly digital age, I was staggered by Wildman's description of the paper records that still exist, accounting for thousands of people both lost and found.
The author includes selections from Valy's letters, which glow with love for Wildman's grandfather. It's impossible not to root for her, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when, as the months pass after his departure, Valy's letters turn into desperate pleas requesting money and passage to America, even as she attempts to put a cheerful face on the increasing humiliations of life in WWII Berlin.
Paper Love is an intimate portrait of a woman caught in the Nazi net—a woman who might have been forgotten without Wildman's efforts. In telling Valy's story, Wildman reflects on the stories we tell about our own pasts, what we include and what—and who—we leave out.