Archive for June 2010
Last week I got on the subway and immediately felt that something was different. I took my seat and there it was directly across from me. The new subway map. The subway map has been the same for my entire life. More importantly, my entire idea of how New York looks from above is based on that subway map. I’m aware of the inaccuracies of what I keep in my mind’s eye. For instance: Staten Island looks like it is a hop, skip and a jump away from Manhattan and Brooklyn is supremely undersized. Nevertheless, I have always been fond of this map. The NYTimes had a fascinating article about how this map has changed over time and the reasoning (and irrationality) behind it. I will admit that I was shocked by how small Manhattan actually is. Yet the new map has made it even fatter.
Transportation is one of the most critical aspects of New York City. It is what makes the city livable. This becomes even more obvious when faced with the latest MTA service cuts, which impact the outer boroughs most of all.
When Sylvia and Adrienne moved into the apartment on 133 Navy Walk Sylvia was very proud of her new and independent life. Just as important as being independent were her ties to the family. She talks about Alex’s mother and sister visiting and how easy it was for them to take the bus from the newspaper stand on the Lower East Side (see previous post: http://bkinloveandwar.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/the-windy-city/ ) to her new home in the projects. Here is a letter that mentions that. Note, her stationary still carried the old address, which she took care to cross out and re-write on each page.
I am sitting peacefully in our own home on our own couch. The baby is asleep in her own bedroom – and I am in love with our little home. It’s adorable and I wish you could be here to help me admire it.
This will be the first night I’ve slept in the apartment and I’m not quite sure what my reaction will be. I believe I’ll feel lonely – as it will be one of the few times I’ve ever spent alone in our own home. Also, dearest, I believe I’m a little frightened. Just one of those vague feelings – so don’t worry about it.
The baby loves this place. There was a minutes’ confusion whne I told her to take a doll into her room, but now she knows it’s her room and keeps running there all the time. Her room has the sun almost all day long – it has two windows.
The apartment is almost complete except for linoleum, curtains, etc. The “linoleum, etc.” will have to wait until I get some dough. But even as it is, it looks so cute.
So don’t waste any time, just come right home, do you hear?
There are so many beautiful letters and I have spent some time trying to find a letter that best embodies Alex’s role as a father – since I didn’t write anything specific for Father’s Day. But I’ve come to realize that in every letter he is a father and everyday that I knew him he was a caring father and grandfather. The intensity of the love that Alex and Sylvia had for each other extended to their children. This will come across in the letters as we continue. Alex’s generous and caring traits can just as easily be seen in my own father.
At times it is hard to remember that Alex was writing – and being a father – from a rocking, moving ship. He writes about how they had to tie the person on watch to the bridge of the ship during fierce winds. This only makes me realize that even though he may have seemed calm, he was still at war, and no matter the weather someone had to keep watch.
This letters is a hastily written note just to keep you informed of my where abouts. Sweetheart we are on our way, and if this note reaches you, you will know that we arrived either to our destination or to another port. You can’t imagine what a grand feeling it is to hear again the old engine turning. Every turn of it means closer to home, and it is a greatest desire of mine to be back home soon.
There is quite a gale blowing and yesterday the sprays became so big that we had our watch on our bow secured to the bridge of the ship. We like it do [sic], and no one is see sick so far…
It was delightful to read about Adrienne walking out of the candy store with the box of candies. We won’t be long at sea. I cheer up after a short while (I hope) we will be on our way back.
My love to you and Cookie and millions of kisses,
Give my love to our folks
Below is an article from the New York Times that appeared on Father’s Day. It is written by a man who read the letters his father wrote while he was in the Navy:
Happy Father’s Day. More on the subject of fathers to come…obviously.
I recently returned from a visit to Chicago where I watched my brother graduate from Medical School. Congratulations, Zach! We explored this exciting city between the ceremonies and celebrations. We wandered through the Blues Festival, visited the Art Institute and took an architectural boat tour.
Chicago is the city my great-grandfather, David, Alex’s father, first came to when he arrived in the United States. He worked in the steel mills of U.S. Steel. How amazing, then, to see my brother become a doctor in the very same town. David arrived after World War I by himself. His wife, Pauline, stayed in Europe.
The federal immigration bills passed in 1921 and 1924 severely limited immigration to the United States. In the face of rising nationalism immigration was limited “to 3% of the population of the United States, based on the 1910 census” (http://www.historycentral.com/TheTwenties/Immigration.html). David remained by himself in Chicago until 1929. During this time he sent money back to Italy for his wife and four children.
In 1929, Alex (my grandfather, the youngest of the siblings) and my great-grandmother Pauline were allowed to join David in Chicago. By that time David had gotten his citizenship and could bring his wife and any children who were still minors to live with him. Alex just met this criteria – he was 17. One might imagine that the reunion, after so long, was movie-like. How amazing, after all, to leave the old world and come to the country where “the streets are paved with gold.” However, after an almost ten-year wait, Pauline arrived at David’s run-down apartment on the South Side and, story has it, her first words were, “You make me leave my family to come to this?” According to Alex, she always wanted to go back. “She never learned English, although she spoke Hungarian, Italian and Yiddish. She never adjusted to America.”
The family left Chicago by train and moved to New York. Alex told my father that he remembered coming to the U.S. as “coming to a country on fire.” My dad tells me, “He meant that when he arrived and traveled by train to Chicago from NYC all that he noticed were the billows of smoke and fire from factories and steel mills in Pittsburgh, Indiana and Chicago. That’s what he recalled. He, too, was pretty upset.”
I’ll let my dad continue with his explanation of my family’s adjustment to America: “My grandmother [Pauline] always said that poverty here was so much worse than in Europe. In Europe she believed that the poor were part of a community and there was a culture and self-respect to be a working class person. But in the US it was seen as a sign of weakness and failure so everyone was much more ashamed of their station in life. I’m not sure whether this was really the case, but that’s how my Dad explained her ‘withdrawal from America’ to me.”
Alex’s first job in the U.S. was also in the steel mills as a shoveler. This is someone who had to race into the open area in the ovens and shovel out the debris that had fallen from the oven walls. He remembers that many of the other workers helped him since he was a weak 17 year old kid. They often took his place in line so that he could have more time to recover from the previous “run.”
David (my great-grandfather, not my dad) was a highly skilled mechanic in Europe and took a great deal of pride in his work. But here he was put on assembly lines doing terrible, unskilled, and in his eyes, humiliating jobs. He ultimately gave up all his working in factories and ran a newspaper stand when he moved to NY. It was on East Broadway near Canal. He had a heart attack working in it in 1946 and died there.
This narrative is one of hardship and triumph mixed up all together. While America might not have been the land of happiness for everyone in the family, and without forgetting that professions do not define people, I think it’s okay to stop and think about how in three generations Chicago saw the family go from steel workers to doctors. I’m so proud of you, Zach.
Ah, that’s right, history! Of late, I’ve been caught up in the love story and the storytelling aspect of this blog. Let’s do some more general historical investigation.
In the upper left hand corner of “V-Mail” you’ll see the “Passed By Naval Censor” Stamp. In the letter below you’ll notice how conscious of the censor my grandfather was. He writes “we are where we are supposed to be.” In more content filled letters this will gain importance.
This is a hastily written note to let you know that we are where we are supposed to be and after this we may head for home. It will take a little time yet, so dear, keep writing to me.
I hope we find some mail from home and I shall write a long letter as soon as time allows it. With all my love to you and baby and millions of kisses
I’ll write later.
Let’s examine the outside of the letter. The airplane on the stamp is certainly emblematic of WWII. I’m unsure as to why there is a stamp when the bottom of the V-Mail instructions states, “V-Mail letters may be sent free of postage by members of the Armed Forces. When sent by others postage must be prepaid at domestic rates (3 c ordinary mail, 6 c if domestic air mail service is desired when mailed in the U.S.)” Alex was a member of the armed forces so why is there a stamp? My theory is that the postage to the U.S. was free but the stamp covers postage once the letter has arrived in the country. (If someone knows the correct reasoning, I’d like to know. If I figure it out, I’ll share it.)
V-Mail stood for Victory Mail. All V-Mail was written on this type of standardized paper that functioned as an envelope as well (as seen above). The letters were opened, censored, photographed and the negatives were sent to the U.S. rather than the full sized letters. This saved shipping space for war materials.
On the day this letter was written – October 21, 1944 – the first German city, Aachen, was taken by the Allied powers. I haven’t delved deeply into WWII history thus far but I find it most striking how little the events of the war, as we learn about them in textbooks, finds its way into the letters. The later letters are full of hope for a swift return home. Censorship, prices and pay, the end of the war, and political upheaval will certainly be present in the letters as we go. But when it comes down to the day to day communication, we hear mainly about barracks and chores, baby clothes and visits from relatives.
I find it fascinating that personal letters were becoming standardized. They were such a prevalent and crucial part of everyday life. Everyone’s letters were so personal and so universal.
Thus far, Brooklyn daily life has seemed more present in the letters than the war abroad, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
This letter was written the day before Sylvia wrote the letter that you read in the last post. I pondered, today, the role of these letters and how they documented what two people felt on the same day, around the world.
This letter made me realize that I do not know when Sylvia’s birthday was. I guess it was in October, which is the same month as Grandma Sophie’s birthday.
To: Mrs. Alexander Rosner
Something tells me that today they will pick up our mail therefore I am writing this letter to let you know that I am well and happy (as one can be in this circumstance) at the above date. I hope that they also deliver a few letters from home. It seems as if they pick our mail up perhaps once a week, so do not expect letters too frequently. On my part I’ll try to write everyday, even if to let you know I am well, only.
Darling, tomorrow and day after I ought to be home to celebrate your birthday and our wedding anniversary. I’ll think of you constantly. And we shall postpone the celebration and the present which I have in mind for the time I am home. I hope you and baby are well, and that you don’t lack everything. If there was a way I’d ship your allotment from here, but that is impossible at the present time. If you are short, borrow, and don’t go without the necessities, I’ll pay back everything when I put my hands on the cash. Love and kisses to both of you.
I can’t help but feel sad reading this letter. I’ll admit that this blog has not been my main priority this last week. The present has occupied my mind more than the past. I was hesitant to pick up another letter from Alex or Sylvia because I thought it might be too hard to read notes that are so full of love and distance. These letters have something universal about them and today it is hard to read them without projecting the things I’m feeling on to what I read.
It was my aunt, Adrienne (Cookie), who wrote to me this week and said that the last letter had helped her understand how lonely it could be for Sylvia during these times. The letter was about the company she had that evening, but instead highlighted how alone she was at other times.
These letters so clearly meant everything to both of them. Many of the letters spend time noting when the mail is picked up, delivered, written and notably missing. It was their anniversary and Sylvia’s birthday and both of these normally happy occasions were marred by absence. In fact, these special occasions ended up serving to enhance that absence. My mood today may be melancholy but I try to find comfort, as they did, in the fact that they so often wrote to each other on the same date, overlapping, thinking of each other and doing their best to comfort one another.
To state the obvious: Relationships take many turns. Some last forever, some end too soon, and then there is the infinite gradient in between. The war temporarily challenged this relationship and simultaneously fortified it. Right now I can’t be with someone who I love anymore. And while I could, technically, pick up a phone and call this person, sometimes I guess it is better not to allow yourself access to instant communication. These letters are a testament to the strength of the bonds between people. So right now, I’m simply trying to find a way to draw strength from Alex and Sylvia.
As my mom reminds me: It is better to have loved and lost…
Alex darling –
Your mother paid me a surprise visit tonight, and then in came Anna and Edward. It was pleasant to have company this rainy night. this note will be short – but I am enclosing some of the Saratoga pictures to make up for it. By this time you must be close to home – so I hope I’ll see you very soon.
All my love, dearest,
Love and many kisses from your Mother
Dear Alex, I hope to see you very soon. We are here at your home, the Baby is very lovely. Eugene is in Belgium.
Love your sister,