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She was your grandfather's true love, was the only answer given when Sarah Wildman presented her grandmother with a dozen photographs of a dark-haired, smiling young woman she had stumbled upon in her grandfather's old office. 'True love'? It was stated as fact, and with no further information. Who was this woman? And what was her relationship to her grandfather? When pressed, her grandfather's sister offered a bit more: 'She was brilliant! And so in love with your grandfather.' It was tantalizing, but agonizingly open-ended.
Growing up, Wildman could reel off the details of her grandfather Karl's escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna. He was the irresistibly charismatic center of her family, beloved by everyone he encountered. His flight from Vienna six months after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 was at the center of his myth: Karl was a success at everything.
But no narrative is as simple as it initially appears. Years after her grandfather's death, Wildman found a cache of letters written to him, in a file labelled 'Correspondence, patients A-G.' What she discovered inside weren't dry medical histories; what was written instead opened a path into the destroyed world that was her family's prewar Vienna. One woman's letters stood out: these were mailed from the woman in the photos. Her name was Valerie Scheftel - Valy. She was Karl's lover, who had remained in Europe when he boarded a ship bound for the United States in Hamburg in September 1938. But why had she not left with Karl? And more important, what had happened to her? With the help of the letters Valy had written to her grandfather, Wildman started to piece together her story. The letters revealed a woman desperate to escape and still clinging to the memory of a love that defined her years of freedom.
Obsessed with learning what happened to Valy, Wildman began a quest that lasted years and spanned continents. Along the way she discovered, to her shock, an entire world of other people searching for the same woman. In the course of unearthing Valy's ultimate fate, she was forced to re-examine the narrative of her grandfather's triumphant escape and how this history fit within her own life and her own generation, and in the process, she rescued a life seemingly lost to history.