PITTSFIELD, Mass.—The box of letters from my grandfather Karl was a revelation.
At Karl’s funeral, my father’s eulogy began with the words of French Gen. Ferdinand Foch: “Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack.” This was my grandfather—everything, regardless of reality, was always “wonderful.” True story: Lacking the correct papers, fleeing Austria, my grandfather arrived in Hamburg, Germany, to board a ship armed only with a set of lies. As his sister and mother huddled anxiously at the port, my grandfather struck off to see the city. “Who knows when I’ll next get the chance to see Hamburg?” he is said to have said. His flight from Vienna—age 26, a year after graduating from medical school at the University of Vienna and six months after the anschluss, when all the Jewish students were expelled from that institution—was nothing short of remarkable and complete with a happily-ever-after ending: Everyone in the family got out by sheer luck and lies. But the correspondence I found insisted otherwise.
“Dear Karl, I heard you married. And you have a boy,” begins a damning missive dated September 1946. The boy is my father. “Since you left, I never heard from you. You never got the idea to ask us what happened with your relatives?” It is my grandfather’s niece Lotte, writing from Lyon. She doesn’t explain how she got from Vienna to France. “We had to sacrifice much. Our beloved parents died in a concentration camp.” Her brother is dead, as are her son and her husband. Her brother-in-law has lost his mind. “I ask you to write to Regina [her sister] and me, because then we won’t feel so alone in the world.”
There are letters in Yiddish and Polish and German and Hebrew and one, blissfully, in French. German, unfortunately, is my worst language—slow and painful, it takes me a day to read each letter, and I fear I’m losing tone. But I’m friendly with enough native German speakers to be able to scan letters and e-mail them around. The letters from Shanghai begin in 1939 and continue through 1948. A handful of crumbling pages mark the last days of cousins in Vienna; they, too, curse Karl and his mother for abandoning them.
But it was Valerie—Valy—who haunted me. Beginning in December 1939, she promises to write weekly, and she does, in an emotionally messy, often banal, flood of innocence and pain, through the end of 1941, when America enters the war. In her first message, she explains that she has moved herself and her mother to Berlin from Troppau (now called Opava), a small, Austro-Hungarian town that became part of Czechoslovakia after World War I and had been “reclaimed” by Hitler prior to World War II under the Munich Agreement. Her mother runs a Jewish old-age home in Potsdam. Valy eventually works for the Reichsvereinigung, the Jewish council controlled by the Nazis that kept a firm lock on Jewish life in Nazi Germany. She is employed, variously, as a nurse, an aide, a teacher. According to the Yad Vashem archives, Valy was deported to Auschwitz on Jan. 29, 1943. But how she survived until that point—and what happened after—was a mystery.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard of Valy. Before my grandmother died, I found a few photo-booth snaps of a girl and a short letter begging for news. I took them to my grandmother and asked who the girl was. “Your grandfather’s true love,” she spat. I called Celia Feldschuh, my grandfather’s sister, about her. Celia told me that Valy was “brilliant” and that she had studied medicine with my grandfather at the University of Vienna. She’d spent the 1930s in love with him; he finally noticed her close to graduation and followed her to Troppau, where they became lovers. It was all very breathless, very End of the Affair.
In the letters, it is clear that Valy is endlessly holding her breath—”The letters are all about waiting, waiting for an answer and never knowing whether your grandfather is just not answering or if he doesn’t receive her letters,” one German friend wrote me after I e-mailed her a few scanned samples.
What’s breathtaking (for me) is that mixed dependence, she’s in love and she needs his help to get out of Germany … actually [it’s] awful. At the same time I don’t like her tone, she calls him “mein Junge“—”my boy,” which is so motherly and rigid. But she is writing into a void—pure nothingness—if I’m right, she scarcely got answers. … It’s so ordinary in one sense (love and deception) and so cruel.
Valy writes that she is waiting to be taken off a two-year quota list to come to America. (This was not unusual: In the 1930s and early ‘40s, hundreds of thousands of Europeans were kept from immigrating to the United States based on nativist immigration restrictions passed in the 1920s.) She lists acquaintances who successfully pulled relatives from Berlin, urging Karl to find them and learn from their success. She alludes to the spiraling situation in Germany without ever fully disclosing what she witnesses. “Darling, I would like to tell you so much of what has happened to me—but when I start thinking about how to explain it all, I realize that the whole time is so poor of … positive experience. … I feel like I am sleeping with my eyes open, almost as though I’m in hibernation; in an eternal waiting for you,” she writes in mid-1941. By this point, she would have been wearing the yellow star and forbidden from riding public transportation.
“You once told me,” she writes in another letter, “that I should not sacrifice the present for the phantom of the future”—this is exactly the way my grandfather spoke—”but that makes me terribly sad, because I live nearly without present. Only from the past and for the future.”
“He doesn’t love her,” my friend Uli, a sociology professor in Jena, near Weimar, told me when I arrived in Germany in June. “But nor does she love him anymore. I am totally sure. She is struggling for life.” We were on a train from Kassel—which, despite the castle for which it is named, is known most for its ugly postwar-industrial downtown where Uli lives with Urte, a scholar in German feminist literature—to Marburg, a medieval university town not far from Bad Arolsen. “She desperately seeks commitment from him. I think it’s commitment to survive, to make her and her mother survive.”
In a telegram dated February 1941, Valy demands that my grandfather send a second affidavit—promising the U.S. government that she would not be a financial burden—to get her out of Germany. Three months later, she writes again—after first telling him she “met someone” but couldn’t go through with it.
The concrete intention of my letter today is our immigration. … In the last few days we received a new affidavit. … Hopefully it will be enough for both of us. Because I very much hope that mama and I can emigrate together. But now there is another, extremely important question, regarding the passage to America. It is imperative that we are reserved—from the U.S.—two seats on a specific ship and for a specific time …The most important thing is two designated, secure seats. … From here it is hard for me to know which ship companies might be best. I’ve heard that the American company is sold out until February 1942. On the Spanish Portuguese line there might be some seats from September on. But I am not sure if this is certain. Should there be a chance, a possibility, to go via Sweden, I think this would be the best. But it is said to be rather expensive. Please get in contact with Uncle Isiu and Dolfi Feldschuh in Vienna (we have also written to them), and please make it possible that we can get out at last. Perhaps you could get advice from Alfred Jospe, financially he cannot help you but he might have good advice. He is trying to get a group of his relatives out …
Germany closed its doors to legal immigration for Jews on Oct. 23, 1941. Any seats Valy secured after that date were lost. Yet in her final letters, she continues to plead for visas—to Cuba, to anywhere. She writes that she may soon have to work in a factory. I wonder whether Bad Arolsen will have her on a factory list, or whether it will have more information than Yad Vashem has provided, or what else I might find there. Could she have survived?