In my parents’ basement I found a box of my grandfather’s, marked “C.J. Wildman, personal”; inside it I discovered another, smaller file box labeled “Patient Correspondence, A–G.” The letters were not from patients; they were from the life he left behind in Vienna when he fled the Nazis: half-siblings, cousins, friends — and a girlfriend.
Among them I found a flier advertising a debate: “How To Get to Palestine Without Money,” it said in bold German typeface. “A lecture about the political and economic possibilities of resettlement of Jews without capital. Speaker: Chaim Wildmann” — his friends called him Karl — and then, at the bottom: “Managing editor/publisher: Valerie Scheftel.” This was Valy, his lover at the time. Her letters, mailed mostly from Berlin, crowded the box of patient correspondence. They became increasingly desperate as 1939 became 1940 and as 1940 turned to 1941. But this flier preceded all that. It was dated June 1933; they were both 21, students at the University of Vienna, in medicine. It was five full years before Karl boarded a ship to the United States, leaving her behind.
Bathers and Lovers: Valy and Karl in Vienna, around 1936.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have much good to tell you about my work right now,” she writes in late spring 1941. “A couple of days ago, alas, I returned from the course I had written to you about. It was quite wonderful! Full of youth, spirit and verve! For the first time, since Vienna, I again felt glad and young.” …
Vienna, for Valy, the longer she stays in Berlin, becomes as much a symbol of freedom and life as my grandfather himself. She is a faithful recorder of her time in the city. She writes on it, muses on it, returns to it again and again. She and my grandfather, she writes, spent an “unspeakably beautiful” summer together in the Mediterranean-like warmth of Lake Wörthersee, in Carinthia, near the camp for Zionist Jews, swimming alongside the athletes of [the Jewish sports club] Hakoah of Vienna, the superstar sportsmen and women of the era, the best swimmers in Europe. In the winter, they dance at the Medizinerredoute, the medical students’ formal ball. They debate how they can be together with no money; it is one thing to travel as students, it is another to live, forever, impoverished. One day, as they walk in the gardens of the Augarten, my grandfather tells her that she should marry. She doesn’t understand what he means — to him? To anyone? Is it to pull her back from her mother, who waits for her in Czechoslovakia? Is it to keep her from focusing only on her work? She wants to know what he meant; she doesn’t ask.
The night after she graduates from medical school, they stand on the Ringstrasse, the grand Viennese circular boulevard with its enormous mansions. They are on the stretch of the Ring near Parliament, diagonally across from the lights of stately Café Landtmann. They stand there and discuss the future. I have been on the Ring dozens upon dozens of times, crammed onto trams, talking with friends, walking late at night when the weather turns warm. It is much the same as it was then, and I can see Karl and Valy there, beneath the glorious statues of the parliament, the imposing marble, alongside the electric streetcars with their peculiar distinctive smell of sweat and wood, I can hear the strange way the tram creaks and bends, like an arthritic elbow, the Austrian-accented nasal German of the recorded station-stop announcements, Stadiongasse/Parlament, Rathausplatz, Schottentor.
They stand there together, basking in the glory of her degree, and she catches her breath, she has something important to say, she musters her courage: she wants to ask him to stay with her, to be with her, to marry her, to have a life together. But then she doesn’t say any of that; she hesitates. The moment passes. She loses her chance.