My parents were never the type of people who kept elaborate photo albums that were filled with remembrances of days gone by. Both of them were Holocaust survivors and whatever images they managed to find or take on their own directly after the war were barely enough to fill two shoe boxes.
By the time I was old enough to go through them, probably around 5, many of the pictures were already yellowed and curled at the edges. There were very few photos of family members — so many of them were lost in the camps — but those they did manage to salvage showed stern, sepia-toned faces of men, women and children I would never know. I remember scrutinizing these pictures, trying to flatten them out with my hands so I could look more closely at the faces and the eyes. And even at such a young age, I remember looking for a sign of hope or fear, and wondering what they were thinking. The little boy in the sailor cap, the family in a sleigh wearing fur hats and muffs. Did they know? Were they afraid?
The post-war photos were filled with young men and women — crowding around cloth-covered tables topped with plates of food and bottles of liquor. There were many pictures of brides and grooms, including my parents’ wedding photos. The faces in these photos seemed hopeful and joyous, belying what so many of them had experienced just months prior.
One photo in particular was of a fair-haired, smiling man. He had a glint in his eye and a gold-capped tooth. “That’s your mom’s old boyfriend,” my dad used to say, as my mother would just wave him off and shake her head. “He lives in Canada now, and he is married to someone else.” This giddy fellow seemed very different than my handsome, dark, and serious father. I couldn’t fathom my mother being married to anyone else, and I never really gave him much thought. There was no air of mystery surrounding the story and neither was there a desire to pursue it’s denoument.
Sarah Wildman, the author of the wonderful book “Paper Love,” also came across some photos from her family’s past. But unlike me, she set out to find the story behind the camera. Long after the death of her grandfather, Dr. Karl Wildman, photos found in one of his private files from a woman named Valy Shefter piqued her curiosity. When it became clear that these photos and the years of intimate letters that went with them were from an old lover, she set off on a dogged pursuit to find out all she could about a time in her grandfather’s life she knew very little about. A time that he kept hidden.
Paper Love begins as a story of a granddaughter’s desire to plunge deep into her family’s history, but it unfolds into a saga about all the families who endured the Holocaust. Valy is in essence the everywoman–as I learned more and more about her life, I imagined similar stories that others like her had. The pious, the ordinary, the extraordinary. The author assiduously pieces together the bits and shreds of a life, and when no more pieces are seemingly left, her detective work produces more and more.
As she travels from country to country, through streets and buildings that no longer bear any resemblance to what they once were, the reader is embedded with her on this trek. Through her prose we can envision the splendor and richness of pre-war Vienna–the country and the culture–the music, the art. And then there is the stark contrast of wartime Germany, of the desecration and voraciousness of evil.
Much of the book is an intertwining of history and mystery, and yet romance plays a major role as well. Who was this woman with whom her grandfather had a serious love affair? Why was she left behind, and where was she now?
The sheer curiosity and perseverance of the author has inspired me to begin to search, not for my mother’s onetime “boyfriend,” but for other stories about my family’s past. The possibility of finding a link and unleashing clues from perhaps some of the same archives where Sara Wildman discovered her own links would help answer many of the questions I’ve had throughout the years. Questions so many of my friends had answers to that I, a child of survivors, did not. After all, learning about your past can lead you to the path of learning about your present.