Wildman’s childhood image of the world was built on a family narrative filled with danger, good luck, and success. That story included her escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna and the successful life he created in America. However, a few years after her grandfather’s death, a conversation with her grandmother shattered the “myth of a spotless escape; and, in part, a carefully curated history.” After finding a trove of letters from Valy, her grandfather’s true love,” tucked away in a file drawer, Wildman, a former New York Times reporter, begins a journey, hoping to uncover what became of the young woman whose letters stopped in 19412. “I wanted to use these small clues, these pieces of paper to rescue Valy’s memory—retrace her steps from birth through school through the years she wrote her letters and, perhaps, even find her again.” Wildman reveals the complicated story behind her grandfather’s and Valy’s lives once the war shattered their youthful, innocent world. She visited Trebic, one of the most well-preserved Jewish ghettos in the world, the Czech countryside, Lodnon, Vienna, Berlin, the secretive International Tracing Service archives in the German village of Arolsen, and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Wildman’s intimate and mesmerizing biography blends her family history into the larger framework of World War II and the Holocaust.
The family myth about the author’s grandfather was that he was lucky to have escaped persecution in Europe prior to World War II and that his flight to the United States was part and parcel of a fairly charmed life. Wildman’s discovery of a trove of records and letters in her grandparents’ home led the journalist to some unsettling facts about the actual difficulties her grandfather had experienced throughout the war years and thereafter. The most startling revelation: her grandfather had left behind a young woman, Valy, with whom he had an intense and long-term love affair. Wildman’s efforts to discover the truth about her grandfather’s life and any facts at all about what became of Valy form the backbone of this exemplar of investigative reporting.
VERDICT Wildman’s extensive investigation into her grandfather’s history is well documented and analyzed, but it is her determination to find out what happened to Valy, a woman at the periphery of the family circle, that distinguishes this family history. The author’s gradual realization that others cared about Valy’s fate, too, led her to a larger understanding of the unbearable circumstances and decisions faced by everyone involved, even those lucky enough to establish new lives elsewhere.