Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind
By Sarah Wildman
Riverhead Books, 400 pages, $27.95
A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France
By Miranda Richmond Mouillot
Crown, 288 pages, $26
The latest Holocaust memoirs are by people who weren’t there, who are linked to the tragedy by the bonds of family.
Two gorgeous books by the American granddaughters of survivors — Sarah Wildman’s “Paper Love” and Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s “A Fifty-Year Silence” — define the pinnacle of this new genre. With alluring tales of romance, alienation and exile, they show how powerfully shock waves from the Nazi era continue to reverberate through the generations.
Each memoir moves between past and present, juxtaposing events of the 1930s and 1940s with the narrator’s quest to determine what happened and why. Meticulously researched and artfully constructed, each is plainly a labor of love, infused with familial tenderness. Yet each also embodies a certain postmodernist skepticism, questioning how well we can ever understand characters, motivations and events as they recede into history.
One template for this quest, at once idealistic and hopeless, is Daniel Mendelsohn’s classic 2006 memoir, “The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million.” After a lifetime of family stories, Mendelsohn chronicled his attempt to learn more about the fate of his great-uncle, his great-aunt and their four children, who all died in the Holocaust.
He pins down many tragic details, but he also wrestles with the difficulty of constructing an authentic narrative from a welter of vague, conflicting accounts. And he begins to see storytelling itself as an act of falsification.
“There is so much,” he writes, “that will always be impossible to know, but we do know that they were, once, themselves, specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths, and not simply puppets to be manipulated for the purposes of a good story, for the memoirs and magical-realist novels and movies.”
Yet the memoirs surely have moral and (in the best cases) literary value. Mendelsohn isn’t renouncing the search for answers, but simply counseling that it be undertaken with humility and an understanding of its limits. This is an admonition that Wildman and Richmond Mouillot seem to have taken to heart.
The focus of “Paper Love” (which originated as a series in Slate) is a woman named Valerie Scheftel — “your grandfather’s true love,” according to Wildman’s grandmother. Dorothy Wildman tells her dismayed granddaughter that she has destroyed most of her late husband’s personal correspondence. Fortunately, she missed some treasures: a scrapbook with tantalizing photos and notes from the woman everyone knew as Valy, and an extraordinary trove of her letters, dating from 1938 to 1941.
These are beautifully written, intimate, heartbreaking and increasingly desperate. They recall, in obsessive detail, Valy’s Viennese romance with Wildman’s grandfather, Karl, whom she met in medical school. Born in Poland (in an area that is now part of Ukraine), the 26-year-old Karl left his adopted city of Vienna in 1938, six months after the Anschluss, with members of his immediate family. Valy had meanwhile returned to her native Czechoslovakia to reunite with her mother.