Once, my grandfather loved a woman. She was brilliant and very, very short. They were students together, at the University of Vienna medical school. They planned to leave Austria together -- for Palestine, for America, for anywhere. He left. She remained behind. And then she began to write.
If I told you that more than 60,000 Jews were deported from Berlin to Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, and the ghettos of the East, you'd likely shake your head. Terribly sad, you might say. Enormous.
"Understanding... took more than knowing about the 60,000 deported from Berlin. Famous dates and big numbers are a paradox: the easiest to pinpoint and the hardest to comprehend."
If I said that from one building alone, nestled in the western half of Berlin, on a street called Brandenburgische Straße, 54 Jews were deported, you might be curious to know why so many were grabbed from that piece of real estate. But the number would still mean very little. If I told you all those Jews were together because they were living in what was called a Judenhaus (Judenhäuser as there were many) -- small apartment-sized ghettos, flats that once housed one family, but now were forced to hold 6 or 10 or more, many families, sharing a bathroom, clamoring for the kitchen, anxious to get to their forced labor assignments -- it might mean something more.
Famous dates and big numbers are a paradox: the easiest to pinpoint and the hardest to comprehend.
Despite my family history, it took more than knowing about the over 60,000 deported from Berlin, though I have wrung my hands over this number almost as much as I have over the 6 million murdered. It took more than knowing of the 54. For me, the greatest understanding came with the story of one.
The girl my grandfather loved had a name -- Valerie -- Valy -- Scheftel. Her letters, written from the moment my grandfather boards a boat in Hamburg in September 1938 until December 1941, when the US entered the war -- narrate not only her story, but also provide a glimpse of the experiences of other young Jews who remained. What did it mean to be an average person -- sophisticated, sure, educated, definitely, but not wealthy, not well known -- living one's life who happened to be Jewish under the Reich? What did it mean to have the world crush down around you? What did it mean to have your life taken away from you, dismantled piece by piece? What did it mean to not have once realized it was a privilege to buy eggs until that right was stripped from you?
As 1938 became 1939, Jews were increasingly impoverished. Valy writes, at first almost lightly, of her despair and missing my grandfather; but she does not tell him that by winter 1939 Jews have been banned from warming rooms and soup kitchens. Nor does she say that, in that cold winter, all social services have been stripped away. She does not tell him, as the calendar turned to 1940, she has been denied the right to buy legumes, meat, and most fruit. She has moved, by then, from Vienna to Troppau, the town in Czechoslovakia (now known as Opava) and on to Berlin, a migration many made in the Reich, looking for work, as well as for ways out.
But when she writes, in June of 1940, "Now the third summer without you begins. Instead of going swimming or boating, hiking in the woods and sharing all the beautiful things with you, as it should be, I am sitting here, pounding insanely, madly, and full of sadness at the typewriter," she does not tell him it is not only loneliness that keeps her from the outdoors, but that Jews have been banned from parks. By the following summer, that despair only increases. And yet she does not tell him that, by then, it felt as though the very air has been stolen from the Jews. She does not say that children, prohibited from playing elsewhere, entertain themselves in the Jewish cemetery; nor that the Jews of Berlin are increasingly turning to suicide.
"I set out to understand not only the relationship between my grandfather and this woman, but what was happening for her in all the in-between moments. What did it mean to live in Berlin between Kristallnacht and the yellow star? And beyond that?"
For so many of us who have studied this period we believe we know the story. We have heard the history before. We know that on Kristallnacht -- the night of broken glass -- synagogues burned across Germany, Austria, and parts of Czechoslovakia. We know that in September 1941 Jews were forced to wear the yellow star, that medieval marker crudely identifying Jews across German occupied Europe. We know that Jews were forced into ghettos in the East, and deported from all across Europe to the killing stations and ghettos across occupied Europe, or mowed down by bullets.
But the authenticity of a single woman's letters provides something more. They open the statistics up for scrutiny in a different, relatable way.
When I discovered the letters written by my grandfather's lost love -- a cache hidden away from the family for sixty-something years -- I set out to understand not only the relationship between my grandfather and this woman, but what was happening for her in all the in-between moments. What did it mean to live in Berlin between Kristallnacht and the yellow star? And beyond that?
It would not detract from the power of Valy's letters to read them on their own, without the knowledge of the adjacent historical facts. They are gorgeous. They are modern. She is writing as a professional woman, approaching and then passing 30, wondering about a man, about marriage, about her work.
But placing them in their context in history provides a chance to fully understand the period, as it was experienced, by a single, normal, yet utterly remarkable woman. I retraced Valy's steps, starting at the University of Vienna medical school where she received a degree just moments before Anschluss, when Hitler invaded Vienna and life for the Jews was destroyed. I followed her through her life in the Reich, when she remained in Europe. I wanted to see all those places, the lieux de mémoire as the French call it -- to walk where she walked, to see where she worked for the Jewish community, and to try to feel there how her life had become narrower and narrower. I wanted to better understand what it meant to be excised from a society, one piece of normal life at a time, from the clothing she was not allowed to wear, to the food she was no longer allowed to purchase.
Of course I cannot feel this trauma fully. I read her words sitting at a desk surrounded by comfort, in a room packed to the ceiling with books on the period. I birthed two girls during the course of my search for Valy's story; little Jews I can hear playing, freely, while I work.
But by reading the restrictions placed upon Jew of the Reich and layering Valy's words amongst them, brought me closer to understanding this time in a way I never had before.
Sarah Wildman is the author of Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind.