Sarah Wildman: Paper Love ... Inside the Holocaust Archives-Letters From a Lost Love

Roundup: Talking About History

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....

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