Sarah Wildman ’96, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, returned to campus over Homecoming weekend on Saturday to speak about gaining access in the summer of 2008 to the 60 million pages of unexamined archival material stored by the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Her subsequent essay “Paper Love: Inside the Holocaust Archives,” was featured in Slate Magazine in January 2009.
“For me the idea is that if you can recover the memory of a single person, you can counter some of the devastation,” Wildman said.
Introduced by her former teacher Jeremy Zwelling, Associate Professor of Religion and Director of the Jewish and Israel Studies Department, Wildman first explained her focus on personal stories about the Holocaust.
“Every time you write one of these stories you find out [about] part of the humanity that was lost,” she said.
In 2004, Wildman wrote a story for The Jerusalem Report on three slave labor camps that had been located in the center of Paris during WWII. These camps were designated for Jews who had been protected in some way during earlier deportations. It was the job of these laborers to clean out the homes and apartments of other Jews who had been deported. The contents of the homes and apartments were separated into goods that could be reused and objects that were personnel and “worthless.”
Wildman met with survivors of the camps—a number of them had never told their stories before. Many saved the diaries and letters found in the homes of the families who had been deported from destruction.
“For me this brought about the idea that the Nazi project was not just about destroying Jews,” Wildman said. “But about erasing them.”
Wildman had applied in 2004 for access to the archives stored in Bad Arolsen, but her request was stalled. In 1948, the archives were set up by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a repository for all of the information that the Allies had collected from the liberated concentration camps. From 1955 until November 2007, the archives were closed to historians and used only for family reunification.
Wildman emphasized the allure that the archives held for many journalists and historians before they were opened.
“They [the Bad Arolsen archives] were sort of a black box of fantasies,” she said. “Everyone saw something mythical there, and that included me.”
Wildman’s grandfather had, in fact, fled Nazi occupied Vienna in the fall of 1938. In spring 2007, she discovered a box of letters written to her grandfather, who was a physician, from other refugees during the War. Before finding the letters, Wildman had considered her grandfather’s story to be one of many uplifting Holocaust stories. After reading letters from individuals who had been unable to escape, Wildman’s perception changed.
“You learn that, in fact, there is no such thing as a happy Holocaust story,” she said. “This sense of obsessive optimism was a hindrance in some ways to telling these smaller Holocaust stories.”
Among the letters, Wildman found nearly 50 love letters written to her grandfather by a woman named Valerie Scheftel who found herself trapped in Berlin during the war. Wildman’s search took on a personal note as she endeavored to uncover family history, as well as to preserve this woman’s story from erasure. Wildman found that the last record of Scheftel was that she was deported from Berlin to Auschwitz in 1943.
“Six million [who died in the Holocaust],” Wildman said. “You can’t wrap your mind around it in a way. One’s understanding of the Holocaust takes on a deeper meaning, when you think of it as each of these small universes lost.”
Wildman emphasized the importance of recording as many stories as possible.
“We are the last generation to have any intimate dialogue with people who lived during this period,” Wildman said.