In school we learn that 5-6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. Yes, that’s a huge number, but it’s just a number to us.
I recently finished reading Sarah Wildman’s Paper Love, a book in which she traces the story of Valerie (Valy) Sheftel, a Jew who would have more than likely ended up with Wildman’s grandfather (Karl) if she had not been trapped in Europe. Valy’s heartbreaking letters speak of how much she misses Karl and cannot wait to see him again. Karl, filled with guilt over leaving her behind, hardly ever replied to her. While showing Valy’s letters progressively becoming more depressed and desperate, Wildman also tells her reader what Valy would have experienced and, finally, how she died.
Nazis gradually took power away from Jews, not all at once. For Valy, the first thing taken away from her was her title: Doctor. Having graduated in Vienna, Valy was an incredibly intellectual woman with a love for medicine. Under the Reich, however, no Jew could be a doctor. They were still able to work as a nurse or helper, but Valy never fully adjusted to this change.
In the Jewish hospital, she worked under the Reichsvereinigung, an organization that was basically in charge of all Jewish things in the time (medical care, education, labor, etc.) Valy was not sent away early on because, as a medical worker, she was seen as necessary to the Reichsvereinigung.
The workers in the Jewish hospital had to witness some awful atrocities. Many Jews attempted suicide, but the Gestapo brought them straight to the hospital. The Jewish workers were forced to bring their patients to life, fully-knowing that they would be sent right to concentration camps. If a worker refused to help, their family was threatened. Through this we can see that Nazis wanted Jews dead, but only on their own terms.
Valy also found work at Kindergartenseminar for a while. It was basically a daycare set up to teach young Jewish women how to care for children. Jewish forced laborers would drop their kids off to play here during their work shift. Later in WWII, mothers would often send their kids off to daycare, only to never see them again. The Nazis had raided the daycares. Even young children were seen as enemies of the state.
One thing I found shocking was the limited time Valy and all other Jews had for shopping. From 4pm to 5pm everyday, Jews were permitted to buy all their supplies. Remember, this was before supermarkets; they had to go to several different vendors to attain all their groceries. If 5pm hit and you were the next Jew in line, too bad. You were kicked out. With only one hour for all Jews, the lines were tremendously long.
Jews were gradually banned from just about everything. They were only allowed one pair of shoes, and they had to sell all their warm clothing, the profits of which would go to the government. They could not have telephones, bicycles, fish, coffee, fruit, chocolate, alcohol, or jam. They also were prohibited from using public transportation, unless they had a 7km commute to their assigned work place.
I learned all this and so much more in Wildman’s book. I was never taught these things at school. While opening my eyes to some of the greater horrors which occurred, Wildman also took me on Valy’s personal journey.
In mid-1942, Valy was no longer allowed to send letters to her beloved Karl. In the meantime she met Hans Fabisch, an intellectual Jew who was 10 years younger than her. Hans never had the opportunity to graduate, so Valy tutored him in medical sciences. They gradually fell in love and had a hasty marriage in order to delay Valy’s deportation. He was considered more valuable to the governement at the time, and if Valy was not married to a necessary figure, she was to be deported soon. Unfortunately, Hans only delayed her death for a month.
In January 1943, Hans’ best friend saw trucks outside Hans and Valy’s Judenhaus (apartment-like building with Jews crammed in it). He knew Valy was home while Hans was at his labor assignment, so he ran to tell Hans of the sight. By the time Hans ran back, the trucks were gone, but there was a light on in their appartment. With hope, Hans went in alone, only to be confronted by a German. The poor man was then sent on his way to Auschwitz on the same train as his wife. Many died on the journey there, since they were packed like sardines, sitting in their own waste. Some were even hopeful that their lives may be better, thinking that they were moving to a purely Jewish town.
The day the train arrived, January 29 1943, Valy was murdered right away. Her husband Hans died a month later.
This book really opened my eyes to how awful the Holocaust really was in all ways. It wasn’t just murder; it was a gradually growing living hell until death. Sarah Wildman definitely did an amazing job at making the Holocaust more real and personal to me, pulling at my heartstrings with every letter. It was a little difficult to keep all the different names and dates straight, but other than that, it was really well written. If you do not know much about the Holocaust or would like a better understanding of it from a Jew’s standpoint, I highly recommend this book.
We must remember all the victims of the Holocaust. So many of their stories are lost and their lives are now irrelevant. In order to give their lives meaning, we need to remember this tragedy and learn from it. And above all, we must avoid running into a similar situation at all costs.