It has occurred to me to write on this blog that I am taking a temporary hiatus from updating while I study for my PhD exams, which I am taking in August. I do plan to continue telling the story of Sylvia, Alex and Cookie in the fall. (This is not the most exciting 100th post but I will make up for it later!)
In the meantime, here are some short pieces I’ve written for other sites that relate more directly to my doctoral studies. Thank you all for your patience and I can’t wait to get back to writing in September!
A new book, Politics, War, and Personality: 50 Iconic World War II Documents, uses objects to approach WWII history, which I appreciate. A significant number of the featured documents are letters from historical figures. While I believe letters from people who aren’t presidents and leaders merit collection and investigation as well, I wanted to share this.
Andrew Carroll understands the material and historical (in addition to the sentimental) value of war letters and has been collecting them for years.
NPR describes his efforts to preserve these documents:
Long ago I posted a “Letter Full of Bawling Out.” You may want to revisit this letter, in which Alex takes his frustrations out on Sylvia. This letter is not the same one full of “bawling out” that Sylvia refers to in the letter below but it provides another side and example of fighting via mail. Her voice is stern and hurt but not vicious – and still loving. She writes that it is difficult for her to respond and you can feel the painful emotional choices she has to make in this letter. She does not want to say anything she might regret, or anything that doesn’t tell Alex that he means a lot to her but she is injured by his words and does not accept them without recourse. She finds her defense is to continue living her life as if she were not waiting for him. She goes to movies without him but still tells him she is proud of the work he did in Chicago before the war.
I wasn’t able to find information about the movies or books that Sylvia mentions in this post but I will continue to look. For now, the emotional reasons that she mentions seeing movies feels more prevalent.
Friday, January 5, 1945
It’s difficult for me to start this letter – I’m at a loss to know what tone to adopt – since the letter I received from you yesterday. Shall I pretend I never received it? ( that was your bawling out letter – and also where you tell me we might not see each other throughout Winter, Spring, and possibly summer… Remember? ) well, no mail from you today, so I guess you’ve started your reciprocal trade (and letters) agreement. I might joke about it, but it’s going to be a stiff punishment not to hear from you – about your safety anyway – so don’t keep it up!! Even my handwriting looks restrained.
These beautiful images come from the Slate’s history blog – The Vault. The sketches of women working during WWII are really contemplative and lovely:
This is a sweet note from Alex aboard the S.S. Pennsylvania. He wrote it in January of 1945 but it was not postmarked until February 5th.
He writes of the news they get on the ship – but warns Sylvia not to believe everything that she hears and to have faith that he will come home soon. Oddly, he mentions that he is somewhat relieved to hear that the government is drafting 26 to 36 year old men because it lets him know that the country is still involved in the war – not forgetting the men still serving in the military. When a gentle communist man who hated serving in the war shows happiness at the drafting of other young men, we can clearly see how being at war can change your ideas and political instincts.
Finally, when Alex writes that his spirits are buoyed by the idea that Sylvia is “cheerfully” waiting for him, we see the pressure everyone was under to be optimistic. Awaiting a homecoming itself was not enough, it was as important to be cheerful about it. This is a personal application of the government propaganda for women to “Keep it short, keep it cheerful.”
At Sea. January 20 -45
We had a rough weather for a while. Now the sea is comparatively calm though there is a strong wind and snow. I am off my watch ready to take a nap for a couple of hours, but I want to write to you, so that you may hear from me, so as to bridge the distance that separates us.
Our thoughts Are full of calm and of our dear ones. Wondering when will it be all over. The news are not so bad, if only this push the Russians are making would really brake [sic] through and put an end to this war at least on this side of the Ocean. I guess the next few weeks will tell the story in full.
Of what else can I write you about? There is a lot of talk about going home. The radio had it on and that started it. It was said that the ruling is as far as the army is concerned, duration and six months. Navy and Marines there is no such ruling, and I guess they can keep us as long as they feel the need for us. I am quite sure that when the war is over, there will be rulings made for us too, there would be to [sic] much resentment at home, particularly with men who have families and have a good record of service overseas. So no matter what the politicians may say, don’t let them disturb you, I know that common sense has to prevail, particularly when so many people’s future is involved.
We also heard that their [sic] beginning to draft men 26 to 36 again. I am glad in one way, because from here it sounds to much like as if the war was over for the people in the states.
Darling, keep on writing those wonderful letters. And never tire to tell me of how much I mean to you. You are to me the dearest person in this world. The only thing that makes all this nocking [sic] around bearable is to know that you love me and are waiting for my homecoming cheerfully. That you have faith in me as I have in you. That you are taking care of our darling baby and all is well at home.
To know all this, and to hear it as often as possible is the only thing that keeps me from thinking that we are all madly insane. Because there are— that there is a good reason why we serve.
With all my love and millions of kisses to my two dearest women.
Hello and thank you for your patience! It has been some months since I last posted, but the reason for that actually relates to this blog. I began writing about my grandmother’s letters when I first moved to Brooklyn about 4 years ago and discovered parallels between my life and hers–even though I never met Sylvia and know little about her. I have moved and changed careers many times since then, but I am now back in Brooklyn and have continued to find ways that my life follows and re-frames the life of my grandmother.
My silence over the last few months has been in part because I found out over the summer that I would need open heart surgery. It was surprising news to get at the age of 27, and from the moment I found out, it loomed over everything. I’m happy to say that I’m almost at the four week mark post-surgery and everything went smoothly and successfully. How, you ask, does this relate to Sylvia?
Well, Sylvia passed away only a few years after the letters you have been reading were written. She was only 34 years old, my aunt (her daughter, Cookie) was 8 and my dad was 4. She died just a few blocks from the first apartment I lived in in Brooklyn – at what was the Jewish Hospital in Prospect Heights. The family always thought she died from a heart complication that started with an infection she got at the dentist. However, with the discovery of my recently-repaired congenital heart defect, it seems increasingly likely that she suffered from the same condition, but lived at a time when it couldn’t be fixed. I feel incredibly lucky to have received the care I did, which didn’t exist in the not-so-distant past.
As I, and my family, process all of this I wanted to share two postcards that Sylvia wrote to her children from a sanatorium in Suffern, NY in 1951.