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My Grandfather Escaped the Holocaust. The Letters I Found in His Attic Would Change Everything I Thought I Knew About It.

Riverhead Books

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 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 livaggressively, 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, Atheisis utterlincomprehensible 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. Ayou grow and develop and encounter the world at an ever more meaningful and potent level, your awareness of this endowment will inform 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, Iis 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.

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 from the story of my grandfather 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 was 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 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,” C.J. being 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 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 one another. 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

TSarah Wildmann [my great-grandmother]

Dear Aunt,

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 fled 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 easy 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.

Reprinted from PAPER LOVE: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind by Sarah Wildman by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Random House Inc., Copyright (c) 2015 by Sarah Wildman.