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Have you ever wanted to see these letters in person and not just online? Now you can at BLDG92 – The Brooklyn Navy Yard Center! Two of Sylvia’s letters are on display along with other exciting artifacts from women who were involved with the Navy Yard during WWII! What I find most exciting about this is that these letters are now being shown just blocks away from where they were written.
Go to bldg92.org (twitter: @bldg92, or http://www.facebook.com/bldg92) to learn details about visiting hours. They have exciting and interactive displays that will show you what has been going on behind the Navy Yard walls all these years!
In honor of Valentine’s Day Alex and Sylvia’s love letters are being spotlighted by BLDG92 this week, so stay tuned this week as I write more about the letters that are currently on display: http://bldg92.org/exhibitions/gallery-92/current-exhibit/
This sexist postcard is a fascinating artifact.
A cross eyed, angry, large, curvy woman stares right out from the image. She assumes that her goofy, malicious sailor beau (framed behind her) has been unfaithful to her. Sylvia selected this card and writes that it is unfunny and untrue, simply handy. However, she still chose quite a threatening and unflattering card. There is no stamp or postage marking on it so I wonder whether it was actually ever sent. There is not much to the content, so the postcard seems just to be for it’s own sake. It was made in Boston and Alex is in Sampson, New York at this time. According to the address, he is in the Gun Unit of the Navy at this point. What year is it from? Family members with a better idea, please let me know! Sylvia writes about her choice to send this card on the back. At the end of the writing there is a dot, a line and two more dots. The meaning of this, is a mystery, too.
Darling – This unfunny, untrue postcard was so handy, – and you have to suffer for it. But if you get this card before the letter, never read it. Cookie send her love to her daddy and so does mommy. But don’t be a hog – S.
Below is a V-Mail from this day 69 years ago. Sometimes, what I can learn from one casual line in these letters simply astounds me.
This V-mail was sent to Alex via the Fleet Post Office in New York on January 26th, 1944. Sylvia sent it from her family’s home on Jerome Avenue.
Cookie was [sic] to the doctor’s today – and she weighs almost 22 lbs. and is almost 30” tall. For a seven ½ month old baby, she’s a little horse! She can take plain milk now – no more formula! Hooray!! The sterilizing of bottles keeps up for another few months. Slowly I’m to start her on chopped foods – she’s to get cottage cheese three times a week. I’m to return in 4 weeks and that’s when she’ll start getting her Diptheria injections. And baby, am I scared of that. I wish you were here to hold my hand- or to hold Baby while she gets the needle. Your mother and Edward were here today – and mom brought Cookie two dozen fresh country eggs. Wasn’t that sweet and thoughtful? And it’s so timely, because it’s the end of the month, and it’ll be a week before the check arrives. Your mom is very thoughtful, honey. She and everyone else is well. They’re all going to an affair for infantile paralysis this Sunday. You remember, the drive is on again and it’s the President’s birthday ball too. Mom watched Adrienne clap hands in two languages and then she sang her a little Hungarian rhyme and Adrienne clapped hands at that too. (cont’d) Sylvia
Unfortunately, I don’t have the attached continuation of this letter but this one page alone is full of so many interesting details. The check arrives at the beginning of each month. Adrienne will eat cottage cheese three times a week! She will get multiple Diptheria injections. Alex’s mother brings fresh country eggs. Where was she coming from? I love the idea of Adrienne clapping in “two languages,” and clapping along to a Hungarian rhyme.
The mention of the “drive” and President’s ball refers to the origination of the March of Dimes. In 1938, Roosevelt created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. According to the FDR Library website, “To increase awareness of the campaign, radio personality and philanthropist Eddie Cantor took to the air waves and urged Americans to send their loose change to President Roosevelt in ‘a march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House.’ Soon, millions of dimes flooded the White House. In 1945, the annual March of Dimes campaign raised 18.9 million dollars for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis…” The Birthday Balls helped raise financial support that led to a polio vaccine. “Although the Birthday Balls ended in 1945 with the death of President Roosevelt, both of their legacies live on in the March of Dimes.”
This is an amazing example of how a nationwide movement, spurred by one inspiring leader, can have an enormous effect. Even when many Americans awaited the checks at the beginning of each month for their survival, as Sylvia did, people attended these balls. Even immigrant families in Brooklyn donated what they could to finding a cure for Polio.
The organization continues today to promote infant health: http://www.marchofdimes.com/
Eleanor at FDR Birthday Ball at the Statler Hotel in Washington DC, with Red Skelton, William O. Douglas, Lucille Ball, John Garfield, and Maria Montez. January, 1944. FDR Library Archives, NPx. 72-18:325
This letter from 1943 is written by Sylvia pretending to be Adrienne. It’s quite funny and, of course, mentions farting a lot. Sylvia (or, Adrienne, in this letter) also notes that Alex may be mad at her, but it is unclear what happened during a phone call that is mentioned on the last page. The mysteries continue. Sylvia is still living with her family at this point. She hasn’t yet gotten the apartment next to the Navy Yard.
Envelope addressed to:
Daddy Alex Rosner (Backward S on the envelope)
You are the dearest daddy in the world. Mommy said I should write to you. Now that I’m so smart.She says you’d like to hear what I do all day.
I do nothing but eat and sleep. But, you know, daddy, Mommy says I take after you because I like to fart. You should see her face when I give a good loud fart – especially when company is around! Mommy and I have signals for each other – when someone’s in the house whom I don’t like, I fart only once – but if there’s someone I do like, I fart loud and long (and stinky too, mommy says…) because I like to show off.
Everybody laughs, so I laugh too. As a matter of fact, I always laugh at everyone. They all act so silly when they see a baby. They make faces, and talk baby talk and say goo-goo, like Uncle Eugene.
Daddy dear, I doubt if mommy understands me. Very often just when ‘m ready to fall asleep, I hear a noise and lift my head to see what it is – and when mommy sees this, she pats my back and says “go to sleep, Cookie.” Really, daddy, will you explain to my old-fashioned mother that times have changed? A girl my age has to keep her eyes and ears open; she has to know what’s going on in the world.
I’ve tried to explain this to mommy, but she doesn’t seem to understand, so won’t you tell her?
I’m very anxious to see if you’ve changed daddy dear. And also, mommy tells me that you and she once had a farting contest at three in the morning… and you won. But I bet I’ll win if you have one with me when you get home.
I exercise a lot during the day. I turn this way and that way, but I still can’t turn over. It won’t be long now. Maybe I’ll do it by the time you come home – and please take a shave if you’re gonna run your face on mine the way you used to.
And now you can’t spank me the ways you used to – I’m a big girl now, pop. I can take it… and can give it, too! Mommy’s really a swell gal, dad, isn’t she. And you’re really a swell father. I have the 2 most wonderful parents in the world – and pardon me for saying so, you two have the sweetest baby in the world. Please hurry home soon, daddy dear, as i want to learn how to sail a ship and to tie a sailor’s knot around –(?)’s neck.
Adrienne (Alias “Droopydrawers”)
P.S. My vaccination’s fine. How are you?
P.S. Daddy darling, mommy said if you’re mad at her, then you should write to me (if you’re angry and won’t write to her.)
My package went out today – and I hope you like what I bought for you.
P.P.S. Won’t you forgive mommy? She loves you very much, and is very downhearted since you called.
Below is a letter to Alex that everyone in the family contributed to on New Years Eve, 1944-5. Some are written in Hungarian and Sylvia wishes for victory and the end of the war.
Here’s to a happy start to 2013, as well.Darling, everyone’s up including Adrienne and drinking to victory in the new year. You can’t believe how much I missed you – dearest husband, let this be just a New Years wish – to have you home shortly, safe and sound, and for our brothers and friends and all the boys fighting those bastards, a decisive victory in the New Year and let them all come home safe. I love you, dearest, with all my heart, Sylvia Come home soon in good health and Zai gezunt. [Stay well in Yiddish] –Your mu-in law. Dear Alex – Happy New year and lots of love. Your sister Serena We are all together wishing you good health and to see you soon here Your brother in law Renato Wishing you a happy new year and hoping that long before the next celebration we wll be all together in good health. From your old friends Alicia and Adalbeil Fiace Dear Alex:
It is the New Years Eve – in 2 hours and ½ we are in 1945! We all came here early this afternoon – and enjoyed very much dear Adrienne’s company. She is beautiful and so adorable and I am proud that she has a preference for me – Before going to bed she kissed us all – now we are waiting till the clock (radio) strike 12. Well, I send you the best wishes in the hope to see you here soon in very sound health. Your’s affectionately, Anichad(?)
Hurricane Sandy left a trail of destruction along the East Coast of the United States. Oddly, and poetically, the hurricane also washed up a box of love letters written during World War II. See the story here.
In forceful and eloquent words Sylvia describes the ways that her life has been changed by war. She angrily tells Alex that she, too, is at war. She is responding to a letter from Alex in which he must vent to her and tell her not to take on too many activities. I have not found which letter she might be responding to yet and it occurs to me that it so angered her that it was not saved with the rest. As I mentioned yesterday, there is a previous post with a letter from Alex in which he does get angry at her here. Despite their distance and the war — or perhaps because it has so deeply impacted her life – Sylvia rightfully does not back down from this fight! Unfortunately, I do not have the entirety of this letter but the 3 pages that are here speak volumes.
April 26, 1945
After receiving no mail from you in more than a week, I rec’d four letters from you this morning. You wrote these before you sailed to your new part where I presume you are at present. In these four letters you again bawl me out. It’s getting so that that’s all I expect in your letters to me! You yell in one sentence and in the next ask me to try and understand! I realize you’re letting off steam and I’m the poor sucker who is in the path of your wrath—I realize you’re anxious to be home with us—
I realize how prisonlike the ship must feel by now—I realize many things! But what you don’t seem to realize is that I’m at war too! Do you think that just because I’m in N.Y. and not in Europe that I’m not in the war? Isn’t having my home uprooted, and torn apart being in the war? Isn’t having my husband in the Anti-fascist struggle being in the war? Isn’t raising a baby who doesn’t know her father being in the war? Isn’t living on a stinking $80.00 a month being in the war? Isn’t having 2 brothers in the Army being in the war? And do you think with all this, that I can sit idly by and do nothing? Do you want a wife who folds her arms and does nothing in times like these? If so, you married the wrong gal! All right, I know what you’re going to say and I’ll agree that maybe I have been over-doing it – and what I’ll have to do is cut down a bit on my activities…
I’ll continue with the paper and with the organizational work of the women’s day group… and maybe with the Thursday night current events groups—but that’s all, I think. Possibly I’ll hand over the second or third item to someone else. – However, none of these activities I’m engaged in separate me from Cookie. As she’s asleep by 6 P.M., they all keep me occupied after that time. I’ve discovered that to attempt to read or write during the day with Cookie around is murder. She won’t let me do it! And before she fell ill….
This letter was written on August 5, 1945, one day before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. What I find fascinating is that the length of the war has clearly taken its emotional toll and Alex writes to Sylvia only of his depression and the fact that he has not heard from her.
Alex mentions the movie “Tomorrow The World”starring Frederick March and Agnes Moorehead, which was first released in December 1944. Notably, in the midst of war, Hollywood productions are being shown by the Navy as part of the Navy’s efforts to teach sailors the meaning of their sacrific: the movie portrays Americans teaching a former Hitler Youth member to reject Nazism. Clearly, Hollywood was not only exploring the heroism of the individual soldier but was also teaching larger and subtler moral and political lessons about the meaning of their sacrifice. Alex’s son, David (my father), remembers interviewing Alex. He told me ,”I remember Dad telling me about New Orleans and his reaction when he of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He literally said he jumped for joy for he – and all the guys who had just survived the European War – was sure that they were on their way to the Pacific war. I remember interviewing him about this and being shocked that my left-wing, peace loving Dad reacted this way. He set me straight, pointing out that all the soldiers were ‘scared shitless’ (his words) about the Pacific and didn’t have a great historical perspective over why Truman ‘used the bomb.’”Here, Alex is in New Orleans waiting for his next assignment. He is busy making plans for Sylvia to visit. Ultimately, she chooses not to go to New Orleans – perhaps because of her health, perhaps because of the difficulty of the journey, perhaps because of her anxiety over leaving Cookie. This was deeply disappointing to Alex. I encourage you to reread his harsh response to Sylvia’s decision previously posted here.
Sylvia, though, is not a meek wife who does not also get angry at Alex. That will be the subject of the next post.
Sunday August 5, 1945
Long time no hear from you, in fact since I left. Yesterday I stood in the mail line for 20 minutes at a time twice but there was nothing from you. The hot sun and the futile waiting depressed me enough to feel as low as a snakes belly. Of course today there is no mail and I am very expectantly waiting for tomorrow. I hope I won’t be disappointed.
Darling returning to the subject of your visit to New Orleans I am informed that there is a train from Penn. Station which makes it in 35 hours. I tried to call the Agency but was unsuccessful and the nearest phone is at least a mile from here. So you inform yourself and be prepared to know.
Dearest, I decided on a few steps I’ll have to take tomorrow. One is to ascertain the period which I expect to stay here. Two apply for a 5”38 school which will insure my staying here for four weeks more. Tuesday I am going to town to make inquiries about a room and perhaps rent one for a week and get you down so that when the vacancy occurs in the Navy homes you will be here already and won’t have to rush about.
In this last week I have discussed this a lot in my letters. I imagine its quite a one sided discussion. I really don’t know what you think about all this.
I am R. Adamic “My Native land” and is quite good and written very objectively about Yugoslavia. Also seen a movie “Tomorrow the World” which was quite good. The Nazi Youth was very well portrayed.
Today I slept until nine read a little in my bunk than [sic] had lunch and now I am writing. After this letter is finished I’ll play a little chess with Ted, read a while, eat go to the movies, have a couple beers and than[sic] to sleep. The canteen here serves beer, and so far I have not gone to town. Mainly because I am trying to hold on to my funds, which in spite of everything I do or rather I don’t is dwindling away.
How is Cookie? Does she ask for me? Is she missing me? I’d love to see her and wouldn’t be for the fact that the trip is so tiresome, and that you would be tied down to your rooms for a whole month, I’d wouldn’t have minded if you had taken her. As it is, that is out of the question for all the reasons I have told you.
Darling, it is very hard for me to keep up this one sided corrispondense [sic], in spite of all my love for you. I do hope so I hear from you tomorrow so that I may know your opinions on ed and that perhaps you may not be so enthusiastic about the whole idea of this trip.
This place is very hot and there was a lot of rain. Perhaps you ought to call the doctor and ask him if it is advisable for you to come, considering the long distance and this climate.
My dearest sweetheart I don’t want you to misunderstand me, its just aht I want to best for you.
Well, I think I am getting sappy. I will write tomorrow lengthily again. (I hope an answer to your letters).
In the mean time all my love to you and millions of kisses to the baby.
Your very faithful and adoring,
On Monday, October 29, Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and the surrounding areas. My thoughts today are with those who lost loved ones or their homes in this storm.I decided to stay with my parents in Manhattan rather than in New Jersey where above-ground powerlines would be pulled down by falling trees. This turned out to be a good decision as Upper Manhattan emerged relatively unscathed while New Jersey, including my house, has lost power and bore the brunt of the weather. Monday evening we watched across the Hudson River as bursts of blue light filled the sky (when transformers shorted) and chunk by chunk sections of of New Jersey went entirely black. The lights that have lined the view everynight of my life in this house simply went dark as far as I could see (up to the George Washington Bridge). The wind came from the East, lending an eerie calm to the evening since my parents’ river-facing windows usually scream, howl, moan and shake during storms.
Since that evening, the sidewalks in Upper Manhattan are packed. Restaraunts are open and filled to capacity. The city is suddenly entirely local. Local businesses are the open ones, neighbors are the only people who can visit, and the borders of the city extend only as far as you can walk. Brooklyn may as well be as far as Iowa.
Partial service has been restored to public transportation and today no cars are allowed to enter the city with fewer than three people inside. Yesterday the streets were gridlocked to the horizon as people who normally take the train tried to drive instead.
I’m not going to post a letter today but here are some photos and a link to a new subway map unlike any I have every seen. Trains are allowed to go downtown only as far as 42nd street and lower Manhattan, which has literally been submerged, remains in darkness and it’s subways lines have disappeared from the map.
I hope everyone remains safe with their families during the aftermath of this storm. Please, be careful.
Alex has just learned that Sylvia is moving into their new home in the Brooklyn Navy Yard projects. He is so happy he can barely contain himself. However, he says, “here I am big and strong and can’t be there to help” with the move. Unfortunately, it looks like a couple of pages are missing from this letter and the subject matter involves Alex worrying about the faithfulness of his and other wives at home. He apologizes for mentioning the topic and explains, at length, how gullible and insane the men aboard the ship become after being so suddenly removed from their normal lives.
Once again, even the happiest of letters is tinged with a sense of longing, regret and guilt about any weakness Alex might feel while he is separated from his wife and daughter. What I find most fascinating about this letter is how on one page Alex can be so sad that he is not with his wife and in the same letter can talk about how impressed he is with how the Navy looks after it’s sailors. This is the contradiction of a man at war for “his” country. When Alex mentions how gullible the men have become I can’t help but think that this would be a useful mindset for the Navy and the United States to exploit with propaganda. What Alex chooses to accept and ignore in these letters gives us a little insight into how a sailor tries to keep control of his own sanity and emotional stability during such a turbulent time.
After the letter I share a few more thoughts on the meaning of this housing for Alex and Sylvia.
Sept 15th, 1944
Dearest woman in the world,
I just received you “V” mail, in which you tell me those wonderful news. Good luck to us in our new home! I know we will be very happy in those new surroundings! I wish only to have been there with you, to share the work and the thrill of moving into our home again.
It’s today that you are moving, and here I am big and strong and can’t be there to help. I hope you won’t overwork yourself but take it easy and you get help from someone. We will have plenty of time to do all the things we have to when I come home.
When I received this letter, I read it to my friends aboard the ship and I was so happy that I hardly could be stopped from jumping out of my own skin.
To think that Cookie will have her own room where she can have her toys and bed and clothes, and you and I be able to enjoy each others presence without every moment someone prying into our business!
Darling, you won’t have to[sic] much money this month to carry you through with all the expenses that I know they come when one moves. When you are short go to mom or one of my sisters and I know they’ll do all they can to help you.
I shant spend more than what is absolutely necessary on this trip, and I expect that when I come home I’ll have 70 or 80 dollars pay coming or a little less, I shall use it for whatever is necessary. I am sure we will need additional furniture, and perhaps I can use that sum for a deposit and out of my pay we will be able to complete the payments.
I thought that just to go away from your present surrounding was worth anything, but to think also that you are happy there, and you think the apartment is adorable is more than one can expect.
Dearest, I think you ought to have a phone installed in the new home. I doubt that they permit them in the projects, but that is easily said than done, but if you give them the reason probably the phone company will give it to you. To pay for the phone bill we will manage some how, and if you have it installed ask for a buzzer that is not too noisy.
Now, I am impatient to get back, I am very much at peace with the world. It seems that somehow we have a lucky star which guides us and gets us out of any mess that we may get into. I am really pleased to see how much interest the Navy takes in the welfare of its men and they’re families, and I am glad that I found out this just by chance in time.
I am happy that you have spent two days by my mother and I know it must have made pop very happy.
By the time I come home you will have clearly in mind what you need and want for our home and we shall go out together and do some shopping. I won’t even make a sudjestion[sic] and everything you will want, will be —-
[hers] to get rid of them somehow.
This restricted life doesn’t help it either, the subject is continuously discussed, the war plant workers, the 4F’s ten shooters are continuously brought up, and held responsible for the married man’s woes to the ___ with sweethearts. The whole subject has percented so our minds, that it affects me too. There are no good and loving wifes [sic] or women, and somebody else is just waiting for the weak moment. Even the saints are conscripted, so why not our wifes. Dearest, day in and day out perhaps just in fun, but still it is continuously griping away. Having some notions about the biological urges and simple every day psychology, it works against one no matter how one may try to confront it. That is why I just had to write on the subject, as it may affect us.
Don’t feel uneasy about this, it is more like letting off steam than anything else. Then no doubts about you. Our life together has been too perfect to even dream that you may wanted it changed. Now I feel better.
It may sound to you that aboard this ship there are a bunch of maniacs. I assure you it is not true, this must be happening in every camp or ship that there is. When people have been taken away from they’re normal ways of life so suddenly, and herded together without seeing a strange face for stretches at the time, they can’t help themselves but to imagine that everyone is against them, and want to hurt them.
The least occurrence aboard is known by all in no time. If a launch pulls up along side the ship, everyone jumps and is there and discussing the feel and the wildest stories begin to go around. We are the most gullible people on earth, it is enough for one to come to the ____ and say, “the maid is here and was dropped by a sea gull” and there will be someone who will believe it, and I am not excluded. If the anchor chain just rasps the side of our own ship, they’ll run in and with bright eyes will tell you that we are on our way.So dearest love, don’t mind my mild form of insanity on the previous pages it will be disappeared the moment I see you. Good night and sweet dreams to you and baby. Your loving Husband ***
It is striking how excited Alex is in this letter about the new apartment. This makes sense, since a young married couple would want a little privacy after living with their families. But it also strikes me as a sentiment that reflects the time period in America. The post-war era would be one of enormous middle class growth and a time when having a home was the symbol of achieving the American Dream. A home for the nuclear family (as opposed to a multi-generational living space) was the ultimate sign that had made it to the middle class. In addition to Alex and Sylvia finding a place for their new life together, this apartment symbolizes them finding a place among a community, and a larger society. Sylvia and Alex have their own home, but may still have to ask the family for the money to cover moving expenses. Alex also wants to have a phone installed in the home. A few decades later, Nixon himself would point to consumer appliances as the most important display of an advanced society.
I am always surprised when I choose a letter and then find that it speaks directly to something happening in my own life. Just as I dig up a letter about Alex and Sylvia moving into their apartment I myself have moved into a house that was built for married G.I.s in 1947. This two bedroom home is a bungalow style unit attached to two other identical unites, sitting among 300 other identical units. Wandering the little cluster of houses it would be easy to mix your house up for someone else’s. The streets are named after Harrison, Eisenhower, and Marshall to name a few. For me, the boundaries of private and public feel much more confusing than during any time that I have lived in an apartment. Each home has it’s own small plot of grass and yet shares everything from laundry facilities to house numbers. On the other hand, there is no “public” walking around other than the other people who live in the community. I have moved to the postwar era. But unlike Sylvia who has to plan the best subway route to get to the family, I am now learning to drive.