I've borrowed the phrase to begin this review of a brief, sad Holocaust work called Paper Kisses. It's written by Reinhard Kaiser, and has been published by the little-known but quite enterprising Other Press. Yet I mean for this famous phrase to be taken purely on face value. I do believe that, if this is not the saddest story I've ever heard, it's definitely one of them.
Paper Kisses, which is subtitled A True Love Story, tells the tale of Rudolf Kaufmann, a young Jewish geologist, who met a Swedish woman named Ingeborg Magnusson in Italy in 1935. Though they spent only a few days together, there was an instant bond between them. Unfortunately, after that brief interlude, they had to suffice with just one other visit and a long exchange of letters -- for then, of course, history stepped in and decided the course of their love affair.
Just how author Reinhard Kaiser came upon a cache of letters written by Kaufmann to Magnusson is a story in itself -- one that the writer, translator and editor, a resident of Frankfurt, Germany, sketches out in his introductory pages. Kaiser was at a stamp auction when he first learned of the existence of the letters.
"There were over 7,000 lots on offer [that day], and before the auction I asked to see 10 or a dozen of them, lots that I had marked in the sale catalogue. It described Lot 6673 as: 'Germany, c. 1890-1955, large collection of stamps (unused, in mint condition, or postmarked), including bundled items, also cards, letters and parcel despatch notes from the German Reich, etc., varying condition, extremely high catalogue value! Reserve, DM 500.00'
"On viewing, the lot turned out to be a carton containing albums, card mounts, semiopaque cellophane bags, and cigar boxes full of stamps. Among all the run-of-the-mill stuff and a few philatelic curiosities, I came upon a batch of some 30 envelopes, all sent by the same person between 1935 and 1939 from Konigsberg and other German cities, all hand-addressed to the same woman at the same address in Stockholm. The envelopes still had letters inside them.
"Viewing at an auction doesn't give you time to read anything thoroughly. However, even a brief glance at two or three of these letters showed that they dealt, at some length, with a love affair of the period just before the Second World War. That was all I knew when I decided to bid for the carton and its entire contents: stamps, history and the stories it contained."
When it came to the auction itself, Kaiser got into a bidding war, but he was determined to win and eventually did. He paid the fee, retrieved his bounty, and headed home eager to find out just what he had purchased. Little did he know, he writes, that he would come upon a story "that would not loosen its hold on me for years."
He immediately quotes from Kaufmann's first note to his new lady love:
"Mine lilla Ingeborg, my dear little Ingeborg, you won't have forgotten me and your visit to Bologna in spite of the beauties of Venice. Those two lovely days still make me feel wonderful. The only trouble is they were too short. All I have left are photographs of you smiling at me 'like a girl in love.' If you want any of the pictures, write and tell me and I'll make you enlargements. ...
"I'm already looking forward to hearing from you. I hope you're really enjoying Venice. Your red nose came out beautifully, of course! I'm going to S. Luca on Sunday, and I'll think of you. Write soon and tell me when you'll be passing through Greifswald. I'll let my friends know. I mean, say when you're leaving Berlin. I send you a very, very loving kiss. Your Rudolf."
'Photographs Were Involved'
Kaiser describes this as a small, undated card, no bigger than a playing card, both sides of which were covered with small handwriting done in black ink, and that the card sent a kiss -- perhaps the first Kaufmann sends by letter because he is not there in person. Nothing else is left of these two people but this "paper kiss," which was sent across Europe through the mail 60 years earlier.
Kaiser's goal, once he sets up these preliminary points, is to trace the experiences the two lovers had, together and apart, through the next few decades or so. They had met in Bologna in the summer of 1935, when Magnusson was on vacation. Kaufmann had been in Bologna for some time but not because he wished to see the country and its people, but because the situation in Germany had sent him there. He was a scientist by training, a paleontologist, with a doctorate, but there was no work for such a Jew in Germany then. Instead, he was working in Bologna in a photographic shop.
Ingeborg, who was not Jewish, happened to be traveling in a group that included Kaufmann's brother and sister-in-law, and that passed through the Italian city.
"Just how Rudolf Kaufmann and Ingeborg Magnusson came closer to each other in the brief time they had available is not quite clear from the hints in the letters," writes Kaiser. "But anyway, photographs were involved.
"As soon as he had seen her for the first time, he sent a photograph of himself to her at the hotel where she was staying -- a bold, even impertinent move, but she did not think it intrusive. Indeed, she was delighted, and had already kissed the picture many times before exchanging a first kiss with the subject.
"For his part, he seems to have been smitten while looking at her through the lens of the 'multiplicator camera' that he used in the Multifoto studio where he worked in Bologna. Perhaps he fell in love with her as he captured her picture on photographic plates -- there SHE was, 30 times over: 30 pictures of her. Twelve small stamp-sized photographs fitted on a single plate in rows of three and columns of four. Thirty pictures on two and a half plates. Perhaps he didn't ask her to 'say cheese' from where he stood behind the camera. Perhaps he plucked up his courage and suggested, instead, 'Why don't you just smile at me like a girl in love?'
"Or perhaps it wasn't like that at all."
This is how Paper Kisses progresses -- part conjecture and part certainty. Kaiser only had one-half of the story to begin with -- Kaufmann's letters only. But with this evidence in hand, he set out to seek the whole truth, fill in the entire picture. He wishes to settle certain matters, as well as tell of Kaufmann and Magnusson's love affair, the happy moments and the unbearably sad ones. But he wants as well to know how these sweet, sad, personal letters were put up for auction in the first place. And he hopes to track down Ingeborg's half of the correspondence.
But perhaps most important of all, he wants to discover if either of these unfortunate people survived the war. Photos of the relevant players at various junctures in this history are also sprinkled about the text and only add to the mystery and the depth of feeling behind the story.
It seems unfair to reveal any of the answers to these questions, but they are provided by Kaiser -- some of them only partial conclusions, others more certain -- in this tale of brief happiness, misfortune, and the vicissitudes of war and racism. The text of Paper Kisses does not even run to 100 pages, but the emotional distance covered there is enormous.
I repeat: This is, at the very least, one of the saddest story I've ever heard. But it is also a fundamental and imperishable tale of what happens to two fairly ordinary people, who only longed to be together during one of the darkest moments in all of history.