***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Sarah Wildman
In the Beginning
In my father's eulogy for my grandfather, he quoted Field Marshal
Ferdinand Foch: "Hard pressed on my right; center is yielding; impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent, I shall attack."
We called my grandfather saba, the modern, muscular Hebrew appellation, rather than the Old World Yiddish, zeyde—or German, Opa— let alone the (far too) American grandpa. Born Chaim, he went by Karl. My grandfather, in my memory and in the hagiography of my family, was a bon vivant, a multilingual, well-traveled émigré doctor who lived with the joie de vivre of a man who had never been oppressed by hardship. Or maybe that's not right: with the joie de vivre of a man who had known only hardship, and then emerged from it, phoenixlike, into a problemless promised land. He was dashing, a character out of (Jewish) film noir, with the perfect suit, a jaunty hat, a top note of expensive European aftershave, a bottom whiff of Odol, the German minty mouthwash he imported in bulk for himself each time he returned to the Continent. His appeal was not simply aesthetic—his hair, as his friends teased him, was unruly, wildly curly, clipped close to his head by middle age, always pure white in my memory, long and unkempt as a younger man, so much like my own that my sister and I would joke about our "saba hair" when ours would frizz up, above the hairline, beyond our ponytails. His nose was a bit too big, his lips fleshy, and yet he carried himself in the way of men who know they are appealing, who understand women—and men— and how to win over either sex. And swoon they did. His inherent attraction was some combination of pheromones, charisma, charm, actual beauty, mystery.
As much as my grandfather loved America, for what it stood for, for its freedoms, for what it had done for him, he never seemed "of " this country; certainly he stood apart from, or perhaps outside, the small town in northwest Massachusetts where he settled and opened a medical practice. His English, though grammatically perfect, had the light, lyrical accent of European sophisticates; he would, biannually, free himself from our idioms entirely for six weeks at a time and find his way back to Europe. The family, at first, remained behind. After a few trips completely alone, by 1952 my grandmother (aware, perhaps, of his attractions) refused to allow him to travel without her. And so they went together, their children left with a babysitter, an Italian-born seamstress musically named Rina DiOrio, whom I remember for her marvelous baskets filled with strips of silks and cottons and tweeds and synthetics, the soft kaleidoscope gleanings of her work that I would tie together into costumes, well into my childhood.
Six weeks they left their kids! Postcards were written to my father and aunt, advising them on where to find their Halloween costumes, to remember to do their homework, to remind them to be in touch by forwarding mail to their next stop, which was, invariably, Munich or Milan or Madrid. It is something I can't quite imagine, but somehow it was just who he was; and, for the most part, it wasn't questioned, he was living a life grander, and more cosmopolitan, than his neighbors in their big-but-rural Massachusetts town—it was a quest to see the world, to live aggressively, that propelled him.
"We have always agreed that life is both grandiose and ridiculous," Karl wrote to his closest friend Bruno Klein, an old Viennese schoolmate, in December
1979. " You have always been and still are the master of this concept and this inner certainty. You laugh at the grandiose, the tragic, the heroic, and in the ridiculousness of life, you see grandeur and tragedy and heroism."
Karl's flight from Vienna— at age twenty-six, six months after the Anschluss, when Hitler swept through the city to throbbing throngs of well-wishers, and Jewish students were expelled from schools across the city, their families banished from work in hospitals, shops, parks, daily life, their world upended—was always described to me in similar grand terms— danger, excitement, fulfillment—nothing short of remarkable. Because he actually finished his medical degree before Jews were stripped of the right to finish school; because he got out at all. And it was complete with a happily-ever-after ending: the entire family, or at least the core of the group, the essentials, got out safely. The story of that escape—and the way I understood it—shaped my childhood imaginings, my nightmares, my dreams. The reality of that escape shaped his worldview.
To the same Bruno he wrote in 1983, "Atheism is utterly incomprehensible to me. It is such a dry, cynical, uninformed, unfeeling and myopic mind that cannot see and feel and imagine the ' beyond oneself.' The energy, the majesty that profuses the cosmos . . . the exhilaration, the joy of life, the infinite of love, call it what you will. Why not God?"
This was very my grandfather. Everything was herrlich, wonderful. Superb. Sublime. He was prone to bold pronouncements, would stand up at family events and command attention with philosophical meanderings. He was a bit prideful, a bit critical, entirely absorbed in the idea of the Jew in History, and where he himself fit into that. I still have my bat mitzvah letter from him, welcoming me to Jewish adulthood. "As you grow and develop and encounter the world at an ever more meaningful and potent level, your awareness of this endowment will in- form you, inspire you, and guide you." He closed with Hazak v'ematz— "Be strong and of good courage," the words that Moses says to Joshua—"Be not afraid!"—when he realizes it will be Joshua who leads the Jews into the Promised Land and Moses will be left behind.
His relationship to Judaism was as much practical—he had his seat in synagogue, in the second row, he held court at Seder—as it was intellectual, philosophical, a game of minds and text study. To Bruno he wrote, "It is the talent and the destiny of the Jew to have felt and known that there is a beyond, to have pursued it as an idea and principle. . . . The very name Israel is derived from the encounter of Jacob with an angel, a messenger of God. It means to have fought with God and to have prevailed." To have prevailed! It spoke to the essence of his escape, not to mention his confidence.
It was some years after his death when my grandmother casually told me that she had destroyed my grandfather's personal correspondence. We were setting the table for dinner. "They sat in a filing cabinet for sixty-something years," she said. "I decided that was long enough." We fought about it. "They are all in German," she said quietly, derisively. But though I hissed petulantly, "It's not a dead language," really, what was the point? There was no undoing.
"I saved the important things," she said, slyly. "Like our love letters." Emphasis on our. What was destroyed? I asked.
"Oh, I don't know. Letters from Shanghai. People you've never met. People who are gone."
Shanghai? People who are gone? It was tantalizing, infuriating.
And over time it became clear that the point of her purge was, consciously or not, to preserve the myth of the spotless escape; and, in part, a carefully curated history.
I'm getting ahead of myself.
A few years after our argument, my grandmother was not well. She sat in my grandfather's old home office, her movements manipulated by some terrible sort of Parkinson's-like disease, as I rooted around in cabinets asking questions about random artifacts. She had always been so meticulous, in her appearance, in her demeanor; the last few years of her life were a blow to that—though there were some constants. She still perfumed herself with Emeraude, a scent that had remained unchanged—like her—since the 1920s; still wore her deep pink and coral lipsticks, still pushed herself into punishing girdles and stockings and heels, her Achilles tendons shortened by decades of propping on wedges. And she hadn't changed the office, or the house, at all since his death, as though she—as though we—believed my grandfather would walk back in at any moment, sit down at his enormous walnut desk, and slice through the mail of the day with the long, sharp letter opener he kept for just that purpose. His marble busts, Schiller and Goethe; Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, and Theodor Herzl still sat in one windowsill; on the other side of the room, a black marble Apollo flexed his muscles into eternity. Volumes of literature in German lined the shelves. The deep teal blue and green armchair where he pierced my ears with a needle—at the age of five—was still placed exactly where it always sat, beneath a copper flying-saucer-like pendant light. A midcentury Danish daybed, dressed in green and blue wool, hugged the wall; I occasionally slept on it when I would come to visit.
That afternoon, in the cabinets beneath the bay windows where Goethe sat, staring, I came across an old album, the kind with black pages and photo corners cradling black-and-white snapshots with scalloped edges. The photographs ranged from formal—stiff family portraits from the 1910s to the 1930s—to informal—crowds of laughing European teens and twentysomethings in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
There was countryside and friends, attractive girls in old-fashioned swimming costumes, and a cheerful, muscular, incomprehensibly young version of the man I'd known as my grandfather, surrounded in one photo, by a dozen girls, the literal focal point, the center of attention:
Among these images were dozens of tiny photos of a young woman. " Your Valy" was written on the back of each one, in a feminine hand I didn't recognize. Here she was, laughing, rolling in the grass in Vienna's Augarten—next to my grandfather. Here she was mugging, posed, hands on hips. Another showed the two of them lying on a bed, smiling coyly; it was shot into a mirror. There were photos of him and her in bathing suits, the two of them snuggled up close, laughing. They appeared, in the parlance of teenagers, to be more than friends.
How had I never seen this album before, I wondered, turning the pages, trying not to let the paper crumble. This was his life, I realized, before any of us, before, even, my grandmother. And it was a life so—was there any other word for it?—carefree. They look so happy, so young, so fresh in the images dated 1932, 1934, 1935. This was his European life, the life—the people, the experiences—he had left behind.
Tucked into the back of the album, folded into a small, tight square, was a piece of paper pasted with a series of photos the girl named Valy had taken of herself. Each square was numbered, 1 through
4. "I am so sad," says the first (they are all written in German). "I'm still waiting, but no letter from Karl has come yet!" Here she makes a serious face. Then in square two—"Maybe this will help: '. . . If not, then not' "—a photo, a wistful face (she is, I learn later, quoting from a popular song of the turn of the last century, "Der Eine Allein"). Square 3:"But no, it would be so much nicer if he' d write again, the way he used to, the way I endlessly long for it to be! If only he' d write again at last." Her gaze is now turned away from the camera, into the middle distance. By the
fourth image she has turned again to her viewer, with a big smile: "But maybe a letter will come tomorrow! One will surely come, won't it?!"
The little note was dated May 5, 1939, about ten months after my grandfather had left Europe.
I held the document up and asked my grandmother who the author was. "Your grandfather's true love," she said bitterly, and offered nothing more. His what? My grandmother was not a terribly romantic woman. What a totally peculiar, what a
totally devastating thing to say. I tried to press her on it, but she demurred and retired to her room. She refused to comment further; I feared to ask more.
Back at home, I called my grandfather's sister, Cilli. "Who was she?" I asked. Ah, Valy, she said, with a sigh, and a moment's hesitation. Valy and Karl, she explained, studied at the University of Vienna's medical school together. Valy had been desperately in love with him for years, and he had barely noticed her. That lopsided relationship remained true until one summer, partway through his medical degree, when he ran to find her at home—she was from Czechoslovakia—and professed his love for her as well. They had had a few years together. And then he'd escaped to New York. She stayed behind. "She was brilliant. Brilliant! A wonderful girl." Vonderful.
Later that week I ran into a prominent Jewish intellectual. Breathlessly I told him of my find: My grandfather had a lover, he' d left her behind, and who knew what happened. Maybe there was a woman to be found out there, maybe . . .
"Someday," he said, barely looking up, "you'll pass through Berlin or Vienna. And you'll fuck some German. And then you'll write your story."
Crushed, I thought, Oh God, this intrigue, this intensity; it's all so horribly banal. Of course there are these Holocaust stories, of course there were lovers left, of course lives were rerouted, uprooted, destroyed. What new story would I find, really? What more was there to say?
Cilli wrote to me that week. She sent the note by regular mail, to my office. "Maybe you'll write the story of Karl and Valy," she typed, maybe you're the one to tell it."
But I had already stopped digging.
One after the other, my great-aunt, and then my grandmother, died.
I had failed to ask more questions, even though I wondered, often, if there was more to the story of the girl in the photographs. I assumed if there was more to know, it had been thrown away, purposely or not, destroyed by my grandmother in her purge of my grandfather's documents. Later, much later, far too late, I went back and listened to an interview I had conducted with Cilli for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in the months after I graduated from college. Valy was everywhere in her memories, but I hadn't yet known to listen for her.
"He had a girlfriend who he went to medical school with, she was very bright, and very short, and she was so much in love with him!" Cilli said that long-ago December afternoon. "She would wait every night—until eleven or twelve—while he was out giving lessons to students. She was from Czechoslovakia. . . ." And then, later, the tape mentions her again: "He was making plans with Valy to run away from Austria—this girlfriend—he knew as a foreigner he could not open a medical office in Vienna. Then, instead, he ran away with us."
These sentences hang there on the recording, ready for a follow-up. But each time I listen to it, the outcome is the same: I do not press her to explain further when I hear the name Valy. I do not follow up. Instead, I focus, exclusively, on the five who left—my grandfather, his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law, his nephew—and I push past references to those who did not leave. I was so sure, then, of the important story, so sure of the supreme veracity of what I already held to be true. Now when I listen to the tape, I am haunted by what I might have asked.
But that's now. For a long time, even after I found her photos, and her small notes—even after I knew to wonder about her, when I thought about her, I simply assumed Valy, too, was dead, or, at least, disappeared; a sad, personal, addendum among six million catastrophic tales. I didn't even Google her. I simply left it alone. Yet every now and then I wondered: I worried something was missing, some aspect of the grandfather I'd worshipped had been doubly lost by not pursuing the story; I wondered, too, if she somehow might have actually survived.
Instead of writing about my own family, I began writing about the
other addenda—the small Holocaust stories, little pieces of the puzzle, investigating the narratives at the edges, stories that asked questions of what happened to regular people, the minor stories, the warp and weave of the tragedy.
I didn't find out what was missing for nearly a decade. By then I'd spent some years out of the country, always, quietly, in the back of my mind, searching—though for what, I couldn't have told you. Part of it, I told my closest friends, was an endless foray into my own identity. It felt so arbitrary to be American. If I could better understand my grandfather's story, I kept thinking, as I spent month after month in Europe, I might discover why I could never feel settled, or fully happy, at home, why I felt most alive in transit, moving. A wandering Jew! Just like my grandfather who fled Europe and then, it seemed, remained on the road for years after. He and my grandmother traveled endlessly: all across Europe, of course, but also China (just after Nixon), Morocco, over the Atlas Mountains (by car), Hungary, Russia, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Japan, Israel. I would receive dolls from their journeys, hard-faced toys that weren't meant for play. Stiff geishas in kimonos, with real hair. A Native American woman, doomed to weave her loom forever. A Nordic-looking Swiss mountain lass with eyes that blinked and a stiff crinoline beneath her traditional gown. My sister and
I lined them on the shelves in our childhood bedrooms, kept them as dusty reminders of the exotic life my grandparents led.
The more stories I wrote on the period, the more people I met who were grappling with questions of identity—Jew, Austrian, German, Pole—and the more I came to believe that if I were persistent enough, I might discover where my generation—and I—fit into the picture. We were shaped by the stories our grandparents had told us, or not told us, deeply affected by them and yet distanced, unable to figure out how to translate them for our own children and the children yet to come, unable, in some ways, to decide how to talk about this history once the eyewitnesses were gone. The stories were tactile and yet dusty, faded; they were real, and yet totally unfathomable. And if they felt this way to us, what would they feel like to those who came after? We are the last to know and love survivors as who they are—as human, as f lawed, as our family. What, now, do we do with that knowledge?
Even as I researched the history of others, I assumed my understanding of my grandfather's story—as well as my knowledge of the sweet girl in the photos—was doomed to remain wholly incomplete.
But then, toward the end of the aughts, something changed. As my parents prepared to sell my grandparents' house, packs of family members visited, culling through papers day after day, selecting, from the acquired detritus of two lives. There wasn't much, there was too much: it was treasure; it was junk. I filled a bag with dresses that had belonged to my great-grandmother from the 1920s, my grandfather's Army-issue pants (he volunteered in 1942 and emerged, after several promotions, as a major three years later) and his University of Vienna medical diploma, stamped with the Nazi insignia.
All the items deemed worth saving were collected and bundled into boxes and brought to basements in New Jersey and New York, where they were promptly forgotten again. Mostly. The ones in my parents' home remained endlessly tempting to me, so much so that, on a visit home a few months later, I couldn't resist and took one apart. It was labeled "C. J. Wildman personal," the initials for Chaim Judah, my grandfather's given name. Tucked inside was a music box I remembered from childhood, an Alpine house whose roof opens and plucks notes of some long-forgotten Swiss folk song. Next to it, I discovered another, smaller carton labeled "Correspondence: Patients, A–G."
It was a wide file box with a small metal pull, the sort of thing common in the offices of the 1930s. It had reached the end of its natural life: fibers of its thick paper walls had begun to fray and disintegrate. Inside, there were hundreds of letters held together by rubber bands that had long since lost their snap; they dissolved as they stretched.
They were not from patients.
They were penned before, during, and just after World War II by friends, a half brother (my great-grandfather had married twice and had a son far older than my grandfather and his sister), nieces, uncles, cousins, aunts—many, though not all, strangers to me. The letters, dated from 1938 to 1941, were nearly all from Jews desperate to save themselves, to save each other. The letters dated after 1945 were efforts to reach out to those who had survived, tentative attempts to reconstitute a world after the Nazis were vanquished. Were they purposely placed in this mislabeled box? There were a few patients' letters scattered among these papers—was it an innocent mistake? Or had he consciously kept them away from my grandmother's eyes? It was shocking, a collection she had somehow overlooked, never opened; it must have sat in his office on North Street, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, until the day he could no longer practice. And at that point he brought them home, tucked them away somewhere, and somehow they had missed the purge.
The envelopes boasted a philatelist's dream world of antique foreign stamps, the sheer geographic spread a microcosm of the Holocaust's atomizing impact: Shanghai, Sydney, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, Lyon, Warsaw, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Haifa. Their thin onionskin pages plotted exit strategies, hailed successes, and rued failures. There was gratitude—a thank-you to my grandfather for an affidavit, for medical advice. But more: there were accusations—why wasn't he rescuing them? Why wasn't he responding? The accusatory tone, the number of angry letters, rankled. This wasn't the history I had known. Where was my lucky family? Where was the story of racing to freedom as the doors were slamming shut, rolling under the gates in the nick of time, and pulling everyone along with him? Here instead were notes like this one:
Vienna, June 19, 1941
To Sarah Wildmann [my great-grandmother]
I would again try to write you and my sister and my brother perhaps you would after 2.5 years have some emotions for me. And give me an answer.
It is directly a story from heaven, how you left me behind, ill. You probably know very well—you don't think about asking us if we are still alive. I am ashamed when other people are asking if I received letters from you to say I haven't heard anything from you. And I don't get any sign of life. . . .
The panic, the terror, the anger, and the sheer verbal scrabbling for purchase on the slick wall of Nazi ascendency was so palpable, the sheets of paper themselves seemed to have been handled violently; the ink bleeds through the paper, the pages are crumpled. Here was a world, exploded, over the course of a few months, a collection of people once together who were never again assembled. The letters were as complete a representation of my grandfather's old life as I could have imagined, and yet, reading them, I realized I had never really imagined what he had left behind at all.
In retrospect, the five who fled together to these shores was an enormous number, and, at the same time, not many at all.
Of course, on some level, I had always known my grandfather's story couldn't be neat—that our lives are never neat, never obvious, even when we live in neater times. Of course I had known that there was brutality behind the smooth escape, that nothing was smooth or easy in those years—hadn't I interviewed dozens of survivors? Hadn't I spoken to others who f led Vienna embittered by all they had lost, by all they had seen, by all they had experienced? But grandparents— even more than parents—exist only in relation to ourselves when we are young, when, usually, we know them best. Here, in this box, were dimensions upon dimensions of his story, all of which upended for good the neat ways in which I'd categorized my grandfather as a child.
It was the thing I had questioned the least—my family's successful escape—and it was the thing that changed the most with this discovery. Those letters, dark, angry, dispossessed, seemed to be speaking of another man, another family entirely. What did Karl think of these letters when he received them? Did he worry? Did he put them aside? Did he mourn? Why had he kept them? And did he believe my American-born grandmother would have been—what? Jealous of the experience she did not share?
Who were these people in the box, writing and writing and writing, these close friends, these schoolmates, these relatives, my relatives, who'd reached out to my grandfather once he had sailed to safety? Had he tried to help? Or had he spent his life in America burying a past he was ashamed of, or felt guilty about? Had he, with great effort and remorse, set himself to forever look forward and never back, and in that way, and only that way, was he able to go on? Or had he accepted that he had saved whom he could, more, in fact, than was even likely, and that those who had been left behind were not abandoned by him but by their governments, by their nations, by the world?
Either way, what the box showed me didn't square easily with his public persona—which was one of luck and joy and endless good cheer. His photos are cocky and insouciant; he looks, at times, like he is running for office. But this is uncharitable. As I researched his story, and the history of those he had left behind, I came to understand it was not fake, his happiness, his outlook. It was not a veneer. It was the very thing that kept him alive.
That first night, spreading the letters out on my parents' dining room table, I pulled out a folded, crumbling, yellow piece of paper. "Dr. Valerie Scheftel born 4 November 1911" was typed at the top, along with an address outside Berlin: "Bergstrasse 1. Potsdam." Below that, my grandfather's office address, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was dated 1943. Stapled to the top corner was a small square of white paper, with my grandfather's scrawl. VALY was written across the top and, beneath it, HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization, I knew, that helped Jews immigrate, and that later searched for survivors and tried to arrange family reunifications.
Two photos emerged out of another envelope. They were staged for a photographer. The woman in them was clear-faced and smiling slightly, a slight gap between her front teeth, hair cut at her jawline, wavy and thick. Her eyes, in one, looked directly at the camera, under thin, natural eyebrows; she had on what appeared to be a nurse's cap. She wore no make-up, no jewelry, had none of the overly stylized look of other women's photos of the era, and yet had clearly taken care with her appearance. In the second photo, she was bareheaded, looking into the corner away from the camera, her eyes creased like she'd been told a joke. She looked lovely, pretty, without affect, without adornment.
Then a letter:
Berlin, July 6, 1940
My beloved only one, my boy!
You will be with me in this world! This one sentence in your last letter stays with me all the time, wherever I am; I can hear it, see it and feel it. Always! When I am doing what I've been doing all these days, when I am dressing the children's wounds, when they call out to me at night, when I cannot go back to sleep afterwards and when I am sitting by the window, sick with longing. Always your words— "you will be with me" are comfort and torture at the same time, because of the question: WHEN will I be with you? Please tell me, beloved, when? I do not know the answer, and the consulate has only a vague idea of 1–2 years, meaning an eternity, unimaginable, inconceivable—equal to a hundred years to me, who must be with you within the shortest imaginable period of time, right now and immediately. Now the third summer without you begins.
She was the girl from my grandfather's photo album. Valy. The two pictures—like the funny folded photo note—were taken when he was already in America; she was writing to him from Germany, she had left Czechoslovakia and made it as far as Potsdam. She was the girl he'd left behind.
My grandfather had kept these papers and photos and letters, mislabeled, away from my grandmother, close to him, a reminder, a memento. Why? Who, really, was this woman? Had she found her way to safety with his help? Or without it? Had he kept her words out of love? Out of guilt? Both? As a quiet means of remembrance?
And then I wondered: could I find her? Would knowing her explain something of my family's story to me, fill out the myth of my grandfather? Or if I could not find her, if she were lost, murdered among all those murders, could I rescue her from obscurity? Grandiose as it sounded, it also seemed, strangely, achievable in the face of the enormity of the horror. If I could bring one person's name back, wasn't that a small victory? In that moment I decided that, of all the people of the box, it was Valy I wanted to find, Valy I would search for—that I would begin a journey to understand her life, and in so doing, understand my grandfather as well—I could break through the myth of the perfect, spotless, clean escape and render it a clearer, less idealized picture. It would be dirtier, to be sure, but it would be, ultimately, a purer, truer representation of what he had lost when he had to leave everything behind. It would make more sense, in some ways, to my generation as we grapple with this history, it would allow me to explain the period to my own children, when they came, in a tactile way, with a story of a single person plucked from the enormity.
Valy's letters—there were dozens—were written from 1938 through the end of 1941, and mailed, mostly, from Berlin. Powerful, difficult, they begged, they pleaded, they cried. They were desperate appeals for my grandfather's help. I scanned them and e-mailed them to native German speakers for help with translation. Slowly, they came back, one by one. And each unnerved me more.
I was becoming obsessed with her, and yet what I concretely knew about her was only a handful of things: her birth date, her address, her education at the University of Vienna medical school, her love for my grandfather—and her words. I felt compelled to recover her in some way, to imagine her world, to recreate as much of it as I could, so that she had not simply been disappeared. If I could find her, I believed that I could alter something, change history in some small way, even if only within my own family. In time, Valy came to stand for more; in a way, she represented for me for all those other Valys, known and unknown, who had passed into history, if not without a fight, then, at least, without a marker.
My hope was both enormous and very tiny. I wanted to use these small clues, these pieces of paper to rescue Valy's memory—retrace her steps from birth through school through the years she wrote her letters and, perhaps, even find her again.
I wondered: Had Karl and Valy's been a romance of youth—not one, as most of ours are not, made to last a lifetime—or was my grandmother right: had she been his true love? What did words like "true love"—peacetime words—even mean to the desperate, to the refugees who lost everything, including often, if not always, the loved? Had my grandfather searched for her, reconnected with her? Or grieved his whole life? She was, it was clear, thought of often. In an envelope filled with passport photos—dated, my father guessed for me, in then mid-1950s—there are several small images of Valy tucked in behind them. What had she gone through? What had she experienced in her years in Berlin? Her letters to my grandfather appeared to end in December 1941. What happened to her then?
I asked all my questions impossibly, childishly. Then I set out to find answers.
Here's one of the stories I heard as a child: Lacking a complete set of papers, fleeing Austria, my grandfather and his family traveled from Vienna to Hamburg—through the heart of the German Reich—in September 1938. They arrived at the city's huge port ready to board a ship armed in part with a set of lies, each prepared to bluff his or her way on board. Yet instead of terror, I heard only of optimism: As his mother and nephew huddled anxiously at the quay, my grandfather and his sister and her husband struck off to see the city in the hours before their scheduled departure. "Who knows when we'll next get the chance to see Hamburg?" Karl purportedly said, blithely refusing to lose this opportunity. He then had to lie, I heard, to get past the border guards (banking on the inability of one to read English). He had, I heard—or perhaps I imagined?—enabled the family to flee.
In truth, he hadn't discussed the escape much with me—or even with my father, for that matter—but that story, shadowy, vague, ultimately triumphant, was what I had always carried. The fall after I graduated from college, I asked my great-aunt Cilli about the stories I had grown up with: Did my anecdotes leave anything out? Had they, for example, left anyone behind? Her brother-in-law, she told me, tragically believed Poland would remain untouched—he stayed in Europe. But, beyond him? No, she said, there wasn't really anyone else who might have come with them.
Later, much later, entirely too late, I came to understand my question was all wrong. Like all refugees from the period, he—they—had left an entire world behind, one that seemed to have disappeared behind them entirely, a smooth wall, an unbroken floor, a sinkhole in time—a world rendered so totally lost it was as though it had never existed at all. It was, I realize now, a reality so discomforting, so unnerving, that none of them ever wanted to fully narrate it for the rest of us, we who couldn't possibly understand, in our relatively carefree world; our own lives having been enabled, after all, by their very ability to leave, by their own success; so to undermine that success by dis- cussing the failures, by fault or not, was simply not done. Only when something mild would go awry would I hear a bit of reproach. Silver problems, my grandmother would trill, in response to whatever minor traumas were worrying me, as an adolescent or a twentysomething, at any given moment.
That smooth wall, that vanished world—I had no sense of it, I couldn't grasp it. Even though I knew, from a tender age, of the horror, I cried on Holocaust Memorial Day, gasped at the drawings of the children of Theresienstadt. After all, we often shared our dinner table with women who had been smuggled to England as children, who had lost their parents as a result, who would begin to weep, seventy years on, when asked about their losses. We kissed the weathered cheeks of the grandparents of our friends, grandparents who hadn't left "in time," grandparents who didn't speak of what they had seen. I would hear whispered fragments among the adults—her mother never was the same. . . . Somehow I had always seen my grandfather's story as outside that, happier than that; easier than that.
And so, careful obfuscations in place, a blurry filter, Karl became the man with the glossy, glamorous—lucky—past. He came to America at exactly the right time, my father would say, admiringly. It was all bold strokes, all perfect. When I was in elementary school, I wrote a short play about his exile—it was all very cinematic to me. It seemed so daring, so devoid of real loss even though, in reality, he had lost everything, and everyone, outside his immediate family. Even though he had lost Valy. But I knew nothing of her, then. I zipped up my valise and sat down upon it. I looked around the room, hugging my knees to my chest. Leaving! That's how my play began. I played Karl.
And yet, much of it was—not a lie—but a considered construction, a wholesale repackaging, one presented first to the generation before mine, from there it trickled down to the rest of us.
In the early years after his death, even more than his notes to me, I loved finding the letters between him and Bruno, small windows into his adult mind, his adult relationships. The letters were kept in a manila folder; tissue-thin pages written in half German, half English, the Gemisch of a half century lived in a second language, between worlds. By the third quarter of the twentieth century, he decided to keep a copy of all his replies. I can picture him dictating these letters to my grandmother, who spent four decades typing them for him; for that is what he did, usually, either spoken aloud or scrawled, nearly incomprehensibly, onto slips of sheer white unlined featherweight paper that were then patiently translated by the fast clicks of her typewriter keys. Dictation would have been in his study, up the plush, winding stairwell from the formal dining and living rooms below, stairs that allowed him to make an entrance upon greeting guests.
I dream of that grand house still, the red-painted formal entryway we hardly ever used (we came in the back) where his outdoor shoes— in the German style—were traded for indoor slippers, his black lamb- skin hats and heavy coats, my grandmother's furs, hang in a closet a bit further inside. Down a step and under the stairs is a hidden powder room with a plush rose-colored carpet, which, forever, even after their deaths, had treasures in the drawers, a lipstick in a gold-ridged case, a powder compact, a bit of reading. The living room had an enormous hi-fi system, invariably set to a symphony on vinyl, or tuned to classical radio; a large couch with a gold-velvet raised pattern; two camel-colored lamb's-wool side chairs, a brass bare-breasted Athena whose arms held up a light; an enormous fireplace with a mirror above it and a mantel where characters wrought by the Spanish porcelain company Lladró were set to waltz, forever, their pale unnatural skin gleaming far from the tiny hands of children. Just beyond was the formal dining room, with its heavy chairs upholstered in a green silk brocade, a large banquette held kippot embossed with the dates of a thousand weddings and bar mitzvahs, tablecloths, silver platters.
Upstairs, the second floor spread in all directions: straight ahead was their bedroom, with its gold-leaf wallpaper; to the left, my father's childhood room, with its wood-paneled library and ancient encyclopedias, which had largely remained the same over the years; and my aunt's former room, which had not. By my childhood, it had morphed into my grandmother's office, wallpapered in blues and whites, with a white laminate desk and framed artwork from grandchildren carefully aligned on one wall, the latest fiction in the bookshelf. To the right of the stairs was my grandfather's study, its shelves strained by heavy texts, the major works of German literature and Jewish thought, the busts of dead intellectuals. Further still, up yet another stairwell, was the attic that seemed, always, to reveal some treasure—a wedding gown, a costume, a military uniform, a box of children's toys decades old. And, of course, files upon files of letters.
As I read my grandfather's letters to Bruno, my childhood memories are supplemented and expanded upon by dryly witty narrations of medical emergencies (his own quadruple bypass surgery, my grandmother's endless rounds in the hospital for a botched hip operation), his children (my aunt, he writes at one point, has persuaded him to read Fear of Flying, which he grudgingly enjoys), his grandchildren (I am stupidly thrilled to discover I am "exceptionally bright and promising"), the world around him, boring summer guests who linger too long, his
unadulterated love for his lifelong Viennese friends. He worries about the rise of Communism and the nuclear arms race, believes the Soviet Union to be the death of man's creativity, but also sees Americans as unconscious, unaware, ungrounded. Florida terrifies him, he writes to Bruno in 1977, after investigating retirement homes.
What I found is the same one-dimensional man—flat, choked with statistics—lifestyle expressed in two full bathrooms and one half-bath, fulfillment expressed in two bedrooms and emotions, love and interests expressed in fun. I become very melancholy at the pathetic attempts to squeeze some meaning out of 50, 60, or 70 years of living and this grandiose demonstration of the utter futility of life filled to the brim with convenience and nothing else. Where are the storms of curiosity? Where are the tempests and triumphs of the hot pursuit of femininity? Where are the colossal satisfactions of new insights? Where is the grandiose sense of fulfillment that comes from emotional, intellectual, or physical performance? All drowned in instant gratifications and "Bequemlichkeit" [comfort] in an abysmal ocean of ignorance.
He was a man of great passions who believed passion should fuel all choices. When my cousin Michael, some six years my senior, came to ask him if he, like his father, like my father, like my grandfather, should become a doctor, my grandfather told him to enter medicine only if "nothing else is possible. Only become a doctor," he said, they were at another cousin's bar mitzvah reception at the time, and Michael was nearing the end of college, "if there is nothing else you can do. If you can picture nothing else of your life but a life in medicine."
"In terms of Valy, I have never heard of her," my father's cousin Shirley (Cilli's daughter) e-mails me, when I start querying family about the story of the girl I discovered in "Correspondence, Patients A–G," the girl who had, far more than any of the other characters that box revealed, winnowed her way into my consciousness. "If Karl was already committed to Dot"—my grandmother Dorothy—"I would imagine there would be much ambivalence about helping his former lover immigrate to the United States.
"Secondly," Shirley writes, "as you know, Karl was an extremely charming, passionate, attractive man—many women loved him and while I recognize Valy may have been one of those women, I wonder what place she really had in his heart."
This sits uncomfortably. If she had a secondary place, would that have made him feel less guilty? What about what my grandmother said about his "true" love? Was that just bitterness at a lifetime of having to share him? Women loved him. When I tell those who knew him, who knew my grandparents, that I'm thinking about him, it's one of the first things people say, with a smile, a wink. He was a charmer.
Shirley recommends I go and talk to Tonya Morganstern Warner; she was the first to really meet him in his new world. Literally—she was at an event held by relatives to welcome their European refugee cousins to New York moments after they stepped off the boat in September 1938. When I call her, she is taken aback—Karl Wildman's granddaughter, she keeps repeating—and then agrees to see me. Tonya is well into her nineties, and she lives alone on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, near Washington Square Park, in an apartment, lined with oil paintings, that she shared with her husband, Alan, until he died in 1980. They had no children. Tonya has outlived most of her peers, most of her world; there is nearly no one left; even her nephews are dying. She is in excellent health, but like most nonagenarians, she worries life won't continue much longer.
Tonya has always been at the periphery of my family, she was a part of the greater Viennese Diaspora my grandfather cultivated and socialized with, a mix of those he had known in Europe and those his friends had known; a bilingual world Karl held court within. Tonya was invited to every anniversary, every bar and bat mitzvah, every wedding. Film-star gorgeous in her youth, she is still beautiful now, with clear skin and the kind of overstylized thin brow favored by women of the 1930s. Born in Galicia to a wealthy land-owning farming family, she was expected to move to Vienna in adulthood—that's what one did, it's what her sister did before her; it was the City. She still speaks Polish and German and Yiddish. But instead of Vienna, she came to America with her parents as a teen, in the early 1930s, when her father became worried about growing anti-Semitism in the Galician countryside. They were poor here; Tonya never received the education she was raised to expect.
Younger than my grandfather by a few years, Tonya fell for him hard, almost immediately after he got off his ship in New York. They then dated, eventually, briefly, tumultuously. Each time I see her, she reveals a bit more of an obsession that she has nurtured for over seventy years. Once, she produces a watercolor painting for me; it is my grandfather, age twenty-seven or so, circa 1939. She still keeps his tie, in a drawer by her bed; it is wrapped up in a package he sent to her in the early 1960s; his handwriting is on the envelope. She explains: She and her husband were going to Italy on vacation; my grandfather wanted her to pick up a similar tie for him in Milan. She never returned the prototype, so thrilled was she that this one had once been around his neck. It is devastating, this love she carries.
Tonya reminds me of my grandparents: she regularly attends the opera, still schleps uptown to the Jewish Museum where she was once a docent; still dresses for her guests. In turn, I feel I have to dress for her. Her table is always set with several layers of cutlery, a plate for each course; we have to eat a slice of melon, an appetizer, a salad; she would like me to drink a V8, unless we go to Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, around the corner, where she'll push me to eat a steak even though I haven't had meat since I was fifteen. They know her there.
Every time we meet, she wants to tell me that though they were a couple only briefly, Karl really loved her, she really loved him—she wants desperately to be acknowledged as important in his life. Even though the romance ended over sixty years ago. Even though, she rues constantly on one of my visits, all he talked about when he arrived was Valy. Valy, so intelligent, Valy so sexually free; Valy Valy Valy. "If he loved her so much, why didn't he take her with him?" she wonders to me, and then she recoils, worried, horrified she has overstepped. She says, looking skyward, she can't say more, she will upset the dead. She points upward—she doesn't want anyone to be angry with her—"Turn that off!"—she says again and again into my tape recorder—even though all those who could be legitimately bothered by her consuming love left this world many years ago.
Tonya has all of my grandfather's letters to her, and he, in turn, tucked her replies alongside those of Valy, dozens upon dozens of notes in tiny handwriting, on pages of purple, blue, and white, scattered throughout with photos of Tonya, looking glamorous. These letters are thick with the recriminations of a relationship that never quite worked out. They bickered (and flirted) endlessly, by mail. She suspects he—and his mother—did not find her intellectual enough for him, since she was not able to afford university. She is likely correct.
Tonya tells me that she and her friends tried, for some time, to rescue Jews themselves by writing letters of financial support— affidavits—that showed they held more money than they actually did. The group concocted a scheme to move the same four hundred dollars or so among bank accounts, several times, to show financial viability to immigration authorities. As she explained it: once a refugee had arrived, the money was placed in a different account, under a different name. It was an essential piece to the emigration package; each affidavit provided "proof " that a Jew hoping to come to these shores from Vienna or Poland or Germany would not be a "burden" on the U.S. economy, that if he would not be immediately self-sufficient, he would, at least at first, be supported by an American who had enough money to keep him off the dole. This money—this four hundred dollars, or however much it actually was—might meant the difference to someone stuck in Vienna or Poland. I wonder, when she tells me this, if my grandfather was impressed by the effort, if he explained to her how essential it was, this work. I wonder if he was impressed by the amount of money itself—it was enormous for them—about sixty-five hundred in today's dollars.
After all, he arrived penniless—to a country that was not nearly so much welcoming as it was simply safe. Here was Myth Number Two, a corollary to the myth of escape: He was a success, always. He was self-made, landed on his feet in this country and was able to work, immediately. He was so fortunate to have his degree already! All he needed was an internship. . . . This, of course, was in part my own construction, my own fantasy, it wasn't told to me, exactly; it was simply implied, by everyone. It, too, is upended by "Correspondence, Patients A–G." Along with the envelopes from friends, there are check stubs stapled together—they are loans, countersigned by the uncle who provided my grandfather's own affidavit to America—each green check is itself stapled to a series of tiny yellow notes, painstaking acknowledgment that he paid back, in installments, every penny. The man I knew had been an overnight success. A sheaf of letters detailing the origins of the checks shows how very close he was to losing it all.
Upon closer inspection I realize the loans were not bank loans, but instead came from something called the National Committee for Resettlement of Foreign Physicians, an organization established, I discover, in what appears to be their founding memo, for the "clarification of current misconceptions" regarding foreign physicians. Misconceptions? But that memo, posted online by the University of North Texas, stands lonely and unexplained. Further digging leads me to an article
in the Journal of the American Medical Association, published in late November 1941 by the founders of the committee that propped up my grandfather. "The National Committee for Resettlement of Foreign Physicians was organized more than two years ago to deal with one of the problems that have arisen out of the present European upheaval," they write. "The task has not been made any easier by the opposition which has arisen in certain quarters. Where once a medical degree from any noted European university was considered proof of outstanding scholarship, now there is a deplorable tendency to swing in the other direction. In incomprehensible isolation, legislators and others build bars around their own small domains, arbitrarily cutting off those valuable immigrants whose professional ability could contribute to the health of the whole nation. It is not the European physician who has changed; it is, at least partially, the American attitude."
The committee I have stumbled upon was created by a handful of sympathetic (and mostly Jewish) physicians in 1939 to combat xeno-phobic lobbying efforts on the part of the American Medical Association, explains Laurel Leff, a professor at Northeastern University in Massachusetts and best known for her book accusing The New York Times of burying contemporary reporting of Holocaust era crimes. She has spent, she tells me, the last few years writing about "the response of American intellectual elites to the pleas coming from Germany and other places in Europe." American doctors, who once venerated their counterparts from the University of Vienna, were nervous about jobs being taken away from U.S. citizens. The AMA appears to have lobbied state governments to block Jewish refugee physicians, like my grandfather, from receiving their medical licenses and finding positions here. State after state, Leff writes in an unpublished article she shared with me, barred graduates of foreign medical schools from taking their medical boards. By 1938, twenty-four states required citizen- ship to take the medical licensing boards—a disaster for those born overseas, who would now be forced to wait the five years to take citizenship tests, five years without an income, without the ability to practice. Twenty-two additional states would require the same by 1943—leaving only two states left to welcome physicians fleeing persecution. Even Massachusetts—safe when my grandfather arrived— would eventually institute rules to make life more difficult for refugee physicians.
Karl's luck held, though—he arrived in time to take his boards, to apply for jobs—in New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts—even as those doors were closing to others. A rolled-up poster I found in his box of "personal" effects applauds him for passing the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine on July 11, 1940. I see my grandfather, endlessly ahead of the rolling boulder of xenophobia, obliterating everyone and everything from his past, and his present. Nazi Germany barred physicians from working beginning in 1933; by September 1938, the month my grandfather boarded his ship in Hamburg, Jewish doctors were allowed to treat only fellow Jews, in Jewish facilities. Then, soon after he received the right to practice, his own American safe harbor became less safe for Jewish émigré physicians.
It was the National Committee for Resettlement of Foreign Physicians that rescued him—and hundreds of his colleagues—from certain impoverishment, from destitution, and from the—I imagine, in his eyes—even worse fate of a life lived without intellect, in a job he was not passionate about, away from the profession he had earned. Created in February 1939, the group was instantly inundated.
Leff tells me it's unlikely, but if I want to see how my grandfather, specifically, was aided upon arrival in America, there is a chance the Immigration History Research Center and Archives at the University of Minnesota might have him on file. The committee worked as social workers as much as advocates, she explains, and some of the physicians assisted have case files documenting both their poverty and their success—or failure—upon receiving assistance. Physicians were screened for competency in their specialties, in medicine in general, for their perceived ability to integrate and work in America. Those files were collected and eventually found their way to Minnesota. In fact, the Immigration History Research Center has collected myriad materials on the immigrant experience, archivist Daniel Necas tells me when I contact him, including a project on love letters between immigrants and those they left behind. He is as interested in my letters between Valy and my grandfather as he is in my grandfather's experience on these shores. But both Necas and Leff warn me that the files are incomplete, so not to expect too much, or anything at all.
Unlikely or not, nearly as soon as he has told me not to hold out hope, Necas writes again to tell me there are some fifty pages in a file about my grandfather. And then, miraculously, in the following days, I receive dozens of scanned pages, mimeographed documentation of the social services that casually determined the course of my family's life. My grandfather, his files show, reached out for help on these shores even before leaving Austria. Three weeks after the Anschluss—
Dr. med Karl Wildmann
Vienna 2nd District
Vienna, April 4, 1938
By way of a recommendation I got your address and am taking the liberty to ask you, in your capacity as a colleague, to answer the following questions. . . . In 1937 I acquired the degree of a Medical Doctor in Austria. Please let me know the following:
1. Which documents do I need in order to be able to work as a physician in the United States?
2. Which US states require the Official Recognition of Foreign Examinations and what are the underlying conditions?
Let me add that I already do have an affidavit and that I therefore would be most grateful if you could attend to my request as quickly as possible.
Many thanks in advance; obviously, I would also like to compensate you for your troubles.
Looking forward to your esteemed reply, I remain,
with collegial greetings,
Dr. K. Wildmann
He arrived in September 1938 and continued to apply for help, even as he took his medical exams, his English language proficiency tests. He had to. He had nothing to live on.
"Dr. Wildman came to this country with his mother, sister and brother-in-law on September 10, 1938," begins one letter from the Jewish Family Welfare Society writing to something called the "Physicians Committee, National Coordinating Committee" regarding my grandfather. It is dated March 6, 1939.
His mother is being assisted by a brother in whose home she is staying, and the sister and her husband have made their own arrangements. Dr. Wildman had been living with a cousin but was obliged to move because of this relative's financial pressure, and he therefore took a room in the home of some friends. . . . We have been giving him financial assistance since February 20th. His room rent is $5 a week, and an equal amount weekly is allowed for his living expenses. He speaks English quite fluently. He has passed his language examination and has also taken his State medical board. He has not yet heard about the results. He is looking around for interneship [sic] and has been writing to various hospitals and institutions in this city and in out-of-town sections He has his degree from the University of Vienna, and has very high recommendations from various professors and physicians in Vienna. I trust it will be possible for you to see Dr. Wildman within a short time so he can avail himself of the services of your committee.
The committee then contacts my grandfather and he writes back. In the files I have, the committee preserved his own handwritten notes, as well as a typed—in English!—curriculum vitae; in it, he gently notes he arrived on September 16, not the September 10. But otherwise, the documents confirm his degrees, his training, his accolades, his bona fides. The committee, internally, then arranges for him to be screened by physicians of their choosing.
Paging ahead, I can see him through the eyes of these Americans: Here is twenty-seven-year-old Karl, duly assessed—he is, writes one, unprepossessing, he has a nice disposition; he is not too tall, he is well built, he has exceptional language skills (this was a boon, the committee could reject physicians for lacking sufficient English). He tells the committee he has trained as an ear, nose, and throat doctor (he had studied for a time in this specialty, in Vienna, at the Rothschild Hospital (the hospital run by the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien, the Jewish community), but the supervising doctor decides that's not what he'll be after all—he'll be a family physician, a generalist. "He has sufficient training under excellent auspices to make him worthwhile. He is not, however, a trained otolaryngologist," he writes. And just like that, a sweep of a pen, or rather, a clatter of typewriter keys, and his professional fate twists: though they tell him he can retrain as an ear, nose, and throat specialist in some years, after he is established, I know he remained a generalist for the rest of his life.
A year will pass before professional life begins for him in earnest. In the meantime, his mother, social workers note, has sold all her jewelry—netting a mere sixty dollars—to support herself. Having exhausted that last resource, she can no longer contribute to her own upkeep. She is on the verge of destitution. Karl will spend that year as an intern in general medicine at St. Luke's Hospital in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It is that internship that keeps him in Pittsfield, I see from the notes of the committee. He has established himself among the Jews of the town, one document notes. The committee believes he has enough of a reputation at the hospital to start a successful practice there.
In the summer and fall of 1940, the committee internally determines it will enable Karl to establish a practice—without them he would have been completely lost. He could not foot the cost of a single necessary item. They agree to loan him $357, which included money for big-ticket items like office furniture ($75), medical equipment ($80), and a car ($100), as well as smaller ones—food ($35), office rent ($40), and a month in an apartment ($12). The loan is cosigned by my great-grandmother's brother Sam, the same man who had issued the affidavits for my grandfather, his mother, his sister, brother-in-law, and young nephew that enabled them to travel from Vienna. Sam was not wealthy, but he had come to this country decades earlier—the irony, my father always pointed out, was that Sam had been the "unsuccessful" one, in Europe, he had come to America because Europe didn't work for him; he was a "failure" in the old country. And here he became their savior, twice over.
The $357 would help Karl open an office, find a home, bring his mother to live with him under his own roof. There was not a penny of excess in that amount. There was nary a dollar to send to anyone overseas, nor an extra ten beyond what he needed to organize his office, and travel back and forth to see family in New York City. And word from Europe is dire, I'll soon discover. Valy needs hundreds to pay for visas. Money that he has absolutely no access to in those early months, in those early years.
In his initial intake, the social workers indicate my grandfather would welcome a rural practice, but I know from Leff 's article, and that JAMA piece I discovered, that that is exactly what the physicians' resettlement fund wanted them to say—they were almost exclusively placing these doctors in areas that were lacking medical care so as not to raise the ire of doctors in established urban locations. The loan of $357 came through, and my grandfather's Pittsfield office opened in October 1940, two years and a month after he arrived in America. In a handwritten note, included in his files, my grandfather shyly writes, "Here I am sitting in my office which you so generously helped establish. More than a week has passed since I started practicing. The local newspaper published a very nice article about me, so everybody knows that a new doctor is in town. . . . So far I had 5 patients and earned $16. Now I am waiting for those patients to get better and to tell their friends about their 'amazing' cure." He includes the newspaper clipping, and there he is, his face boyish, a hint of a smile.
It was not a smooth start. To the committee members—apparently he must write about his expenditures and income each month—my grandfather writes that he has not taken in as much as he'd hoped—in his second month he pulled in eighteen dollars, less than the cost of running an office, let alone rent, let alone supporting his mother.
"Dear Dr. Wildman," they write. "We have your report for the last month and in view of your connections in town are rather surprised it has been so poor. I think you will recall that the arrangement we had made was for supplementation for a three-month period. I wonder whether you might not consider other possible plans in view of the limitations that we have for further loans." And there again he has his luck—they give him just one month to get it right! One month to turn around his finances, his success. He writes back with great anxiety.
December 16, 1940
I myself am gravely disappointed about the slow development of my practice. Yet I was told it took people who were born and brought up here in town several months to get started. They know practically everybody in town and had many friends who had confidence in them but they simply had to wait until those friends got sick and after the first few good cases their practice developed rapidly. . . . It is only too understandable that your loans have limitations. Immediately upon receipt of your letter I got in touch with a CCC Camp near Pittsfield trying to get a part-time job there. I hope fervently to get it. That would pay all my expenses. Would you have any other suggestions? May I count on your courtesy in the case of failure?
The camp he refers to was part of the New Deal work relief program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps—it employed young, unmarried men who worked the land on behalf of their families (for the money they earned) and their country (creating forests and parkland). He seems not to have gotten this job, it was never mentioned again.
The committee reluctantly issues another eighty-four-dollar loan—the notes in his file are weary and ominous: they can support each physician only for a short amount of time. His time is running out.
And then, somehow, he pulls it out—the money trickles in, the patients start to arrive. The following month he makes seventy-four dollars. It is enough to ensure they will allow him to continue—because he can contribute to his own upkeep, they will give him one more month of support: forty-four dollars more. The notes indicated they would have stopped supporting him if an additional month did not work out—and they would have sought to have him resettled elsewhere, and not in private practice. But with his turn of fortune, they will not cut him off, yet. His mother can come live with him; he can, it appears, support her now. He can, more importantly, be a success here.
Because these were loans in the truest sense, they came due immediately, literally the moment the first patients became regulars and his stationery was printed. Piece by piece Karl begins to repay, forty-four dollars here, a hundred dollars there. He pays and pays and pays, and the committee duly writes to remind him if he is late; to remind him that there are others like him who need the money; that this money is not his. His payments continue all the way into the fall of
1942, at which point they write: "We wish take this occasion to wish you the very best of luck for your service in the armed forces." He has volunteered for the U.S. Army. In all that time, though, I'm well aware, there was no extra money to purchase freedom for anyone else trying to come over.
As I try to piece together what life was like in those early months, that first year, I call Joseph Feldschuh, my grandfather's nephew who left Vienna with him; he was only three at the time of his passage. He has no personal memory of Valy, at least not from Austria. The name, however, is familiar. He can't give me exactly what I'm looking for; he was too young for crisp memories. It is all broad strokes. "My grandmother, Sarah Wildman," he booms on speakerphone, "had a brother in this country named Sam Feldschuh and he came to this country in sometime like 1900 or 1905 . . . so he left early to get out of being drafted by the Russian army, which was anti-Semitic but was happy to grab soldiers . . . so he got here and he married a woman named Fanny Hollenberg and they had four children."
He proceeds, biblically, to list them all then, and their progeny. I dutifully write it down. "When they finally got the affidavits [from Sam] they were one short." This, I think, must be the story of the in- complete papers in Hamburg. "And my father was the one who interceded somehow with the Nazis. My father was a real charmer, I don't know if you remember him. And he managed to get one more. So there was a visa for my parents and myself. Your grandfather, and your great-grandmother, for five people. You know that movie Sophie's Choice? With Meryl Streep? So you know about those kinds of choices." I'm actually not at all sure what he means here, though I read the book and saw the movie years ago. Does he mean Valy? Does he mean the others that don't get to go with them? Who were the others? Whom did they leave behind?
Maybe he means all of it. I'm struck, too, that in his side of the family it was his father not my grandfather who got them out. Another family's myth? A truth that upends my own version of the story? There is no way to confirm; all those in question are gone.
"I remember that my mother was in communication after the war with a couple of people who had escaped. I've heard there were some letters [before the war] from people needing help, but"— he grows sharper in tone here—"your grandfather was in no position to help anybody. We were very, very lucky that we were accepted into America . . ."
No position to help anybody. This is clear, from the loans I find, from the stomach-tightening fear embedded in Karl's own correspondence with his American saviors.
Some of those rumored European letters I find. They arrived heavy with desperation, at the same time my grandfather was negotiating with the National Committee for Resettlement of Foreign Physicians. At the exact moment the committee is debating his future, my grandfather is receiving requests from half of his former university schoolmates for visa money, for affidavits. At the exact moment it is questionable how he will support himself and his family, Valy his former lover—and her friends, I'll come to realize, and her family—is
reaching out to him and begging him for visas that cost upwards of a hundred and a hundred fifty dollars apiece.
He is scrounging for loans that start at twenty-five dollars. He cannot pay for his own mother's upkeep. Perhaps, I wonder as I read, the "love" my grandmother spoke of was really guilt. A sense of the horror at how much easier things might have been, were he not desperate for another ten dollars here, fifty dollars there, that lingered with him, for a lifetime. By the late 1940s he was successful—later letters show that in the early 1950s, he helped survivor cousins who escaped to Palestine purchase a truck for two thousand dollars, a tremendous amount of money in those years. Was all that largesse in response, consciously or not, to the complete tragedy of his own impoverished years? He was supposed to have been the master of all things—languages, cultures, medicine—and here he was, like so many other émigrés before him, stymied, tripped up, at least temporarily, by a system that was not remotely hospitable, let alone easy to navigate.
Indeed, how could it not have had an effect on him? He was inundated—just like the committee—with requests for money, for affidavits, for passage to the New World. "News from Europe," he writes to Tonya. "Conditions are terrible."
"We were unable to stay in Budapest and had to come back here," writes one friend, from Vienna, in mid-December 1938. "We hope, however, to be able to leave from here within 2–3 weeks." The writer wants my grandfather to explain how they can get from Cuba to the United States:
Because whatever one hears here is so confusing that it is very difficult to get a clear picture. Some people insist that one may wait for the quota in Cuba. . . . Moreover it is still unclear to us how long the Polish and the Romanian quota must wait. I am convinced that your creativity and your instincts have researched the shortest and best options possible. . . . We are allowed to stay [in Vienna] only until January 10 and hope to have obtained by then the visas in order to find, as already mentioned, a suitable or tolerable stopover until we are able to board a ship. The ships that are bound for Cuba are sold out 2–3 months in advance, but we hope to find a stopover place with the help of the visas. . . . I do hope, however, that the petition of Dr. Eisenstein will be met with a positive resolution and that you together with our noble and much esteemed friend Mr. Klamer will find ways to help us. While I do not want to cry on your shoulder, I am quite sure that you do understand us!!
I believe, dear friend, that you are fully in the picture, and I send you and your loved ones my most cordial regards
Such a terribly large amount of pressure placed upon him, and so ridiculously little he could actually do to help—"I do hope . . . that you together with our noble and much esteemed friend . . . will find ways to help us." And still the letters keep coming. "Hermann, Lola and Paul, in addition to their in-laws (all of them Polish quota) already have received good news from the American consulate and will be able to travel to the U.S.A. already at the end of September!!" writes another friend, who has made it as far as Prague in August 1939. Were they still able to leave, once the Germans invaded Poland? This I don't know. The letter, in any case, continues. "I, my wife and son and brother-in-law Karl will stay behind. In our case it is even questionable, due to the Romanian quota, whether we will get a chance at all." Here he gets to where my grandfather could help.
Now I would like to share the following plan and idea for implementation with you: From here already several general practitioners (i.e., not clinicians or otherwise prominent scientists) have traveled to the USA outside the quota to take up hospital or similar positions or contracts. Since such opportunities could just be imaginary positions, this should not be too difficult, given your cleverness! I would herewith like to offer you Dollar 50.00 for your efforts (and positive outcome) in this regard, and I shall reserve this amount for you. In this way, I hope to be able to travel quickly with my wife and son. Our emigration formalities (highly complicated) have already been initiated here, and we hope to be able to travel via Italy in about 3 weeks. . . . Let me therefore please ask you not to let us wait too long. I am sending best regards to you and your family members.
Laurel Leff confirms for me that this rumor was true, that there were some who were able to get around the quotas by receiving appointments at universities. But the author of this missive—who writes in formal German and appears not to be a particularly close friend—is asking my grandfather to concoct a fake appointment, to ensure his family safe passage by pretending to hire him as a professor: "This should not be too difficult, given your cleverness!"
So many people need him. And these weren't even the letters from Valy, for whom, I will discover, he tried to do everything; for whom, I will discover, the price of survival would climb and climb as 1939 turned into 1940 and 1940 turned into 1941.
A small leatherette address book is stuck into his collection of letters. It was purchased, it seems, in America, as on the cover is written very faintly in English, "Notes." Inside are listings for dozens of aid societies, doctors, and friends from Vienna. One after another, addresses in Vienna were crossed out and new cities, new countries, written in. These refugees were in good company: some 206,000 Jews lived in Austria before the Anschluss; from the date of Hitler's arrival through May 1939, about 130,000 fled.
Everyone is searching for safe passage to another country; or at least passage. "The family is torn without knowing if we will ever be again together in our lives," write close friends who have landed, uncomfortably, in Shanghai. "Only God knows how troubled our hearts are, not to be able to come to you." Vienna is disappearing already, it no longer exists, it is no longer the city of his youth; it is not even the city of the days after the Anschluss. Precious Vienna has scattered into a million tiny pieces across the globe.