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.
We are going back a few years in this letter, to the time before Sylvia moved into her apartment in the Brooklyn Navy Yard projects. This letter is particularly gossipy and entertaining. There is no mention of anything here except the beauty salon and a wedding that Sylvia attended. I wish we still had the pictures that Sylvia refers to here. I’d like to see her and Adrienne in front of the Hudson River, the water that I looked at everyday growing up from my apartment.
Sylvia talks about going to get her “hair set” in this letter. I’m not even sure what that means (though I can imagine it involves a lot of hairspray and chemicals). Her referral to Alex’s mother as “Mom” and her attachment to Serena comes through with clarity in this snippet of everyday life for a woman who’s husband is away but who has, in his stead, a whole new family.
September 10th, 1944
Received these pictures today and am mailing them to you. Doesn’t Adrienne look adorable? The water is the Hudson River. The calf we ate a few weeks later. Horrible thought.
I have a lot of work packing. Oh how I wish you were here. As it is, I’m anxiously waiting for your cable assuring me of your safety.
I’m expecting 2 more rolls to be developed and you’ll see the results as soon as I.
Your mother and Serena were here and
Serena gave me $15.00 for the rent. Isn’t she wonderful? They were here Saturday – and when I went to the beauty parlor to have my hair set for Emma’s wedding, Serena and Mom came along. Mom had her hair set and Serena had her nails done. I looked wonderful darling, and how I wished you could have been there with me. It was a nice wedding and my cousin Emma good, for her. Charlie Winter says she’s the only ugly bride he’s ever seen. I’m enclosing the menu .The liquor was lousy- but the food was good. The groom is skinny and gawky and ugly. But they will be very happy.
Cookie is downstairs with Mom and I’m supposed to be packing. It’s such a headache! But once I’m settled in the new apartment, it’ll be O.K. Darling, kiss me as long and as often as you can when you come home. And dream of me tonight.
I love you, sweetheart.
All our love,
Sylvia and Adrienne
The note that Serena gave Sylvia money for rent caught my attention. There are any number of mentions of the family giving each other money but today what I noticed is that this $15 was for rent. America is at war during this time and in just a few years, with the return of the G.I.s, America will enter of economic prosperity and the expansion of the white middle class. Yet here, just a few years earlier Sylvia cannot even afford her rent while her husband is away at war. Sylvia is lucky to get an apartment in the projects — the housing shortage in New York will not be addressed for a few more years — and the letters just after her move are filled with concerns about the cost of moving. I particularly relate to this letter because of my own spatial (but seemingly temporal) relocation. It seems that I myself have moved to the 1950s. More on that in another post.
This week I finally got around to seeing the Joss Whedon blockbuster movie, The Avengers. This proved an entertaining distraction from the heat and introduced me to a character that really caught my attention — the character known as Captain America. I had no knowledge of Captain America’s back story before the film and I enjoyed how the other heroes in the movie treated him as an outdated, all-too-wholesome, naively patriotic boy. He is an unquestioning soldier who believes in distinct lines between pure good and evil.
This remnant of WWII comics was striking to me, in an era of hero movies that question who is truly “good.” (I am eagerly looking forward to the new Batman movie.) Captain America took hold of American youth before the U.S. had officially entered WWII, and thus is not the favorite hero of the baby-boomer generation, though immensely popular when he was created.
I decided to read a little about Captain America (and yes, I started with Wikipedia). I read, “For nearly all of the character’s publication history, Captain America was the alter ego of Steve Rogers, a frail young man who was enhanced to the peak of human perfection by an experimental serum in order to aid the United States war effort.” I read the first pages of the premiere comic.The war-mongering vermin – this is how the comic refers to the Nazis – are threatening peace-loving America. Young men volunteer to fight but the Allies need something more … We, along with a FBI agent, are led into a secret laboratory where they inject a special formula into a weak looking young man. That is as far as I could read for free but in case you couldn’t guess, this young man becomes Captain America.
What seems most odd to me about the creation story for this particular super hero is that it is a scientific process aimed at creating a superior and perfect race of humans. Does this sound a bit too similar to the Nazi aim as well? The creation of Captain America has nothing to do with him working through the ranks of the military to become a captain. Nor does something special cause him to gain super human abilities (e.g. a special crop of corn from the heartland causes him to become a super American). It is simply a government experimenting with genetic modification. Wikipedia explicitly says, “Captain America Comics #1 — cover-dated March 1941 and on sale in December 1940, a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but a full year into World War II — showed the protagonist punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the jaw; it sold nearly one million copies.” Though the creator of Captain American was certainly opposed to the Third Reich’s practices, he simultaneously created a fairly Aryan superhero who lacks a story that opposes the ideology of a supreme race. While characters like Superman come from another planet, Batman has a lot of fancy gadgets, and X-Men naturally mutate into super heroes, the hero who is invented solely to help the war effort and fight the Nazi Regime is a genetically altered super-human.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Berlin — a city saturated in World War II history. When you walk around Berlin, you come across the Holocaust Memorial whether you mean to or not. The rows of cement rectangles grow and form waves just to side of Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park) and south of the Brandenburg Gate and Unter den Linden – the famously wide avenue where the Nazis once paraded in strict formation. This memorial, along with the Topographie of Terrors — a site that chronicles Hitler’s rise to power and the horrifyingly organized, yet disturbingly arbitrary, takeover of Germany — led me to realize just how absent the discussion of Nazis, systematic mass murders, and the persecution of Jews is from the letters between my grandparents. My grandfather was deeply committed to radical left wing causes and he was Jewish (even if not practicing), yet there has been complete silence on this subject in their correspondence. Is this because it might be censored? Is it because the atrocities being committed were already common knowledge by 1943, when these letters begin? Are they too horrible to write about? Or, alternatively, were the atrocities still not well understood? Could it be that when it comes to the daily struggles of war, the more distant or “ideological” reasons for the war recede from your mind, no matter how real or tragic they are?
Berlin confronts its past everywhere you look. Even in a spot such as a bus stop, you might find an unforgiving portrait of a German Nazi who was responsible for the murder of a group of people, accompanied by a photo.
The city appears to my naive eyes to be thriving. It is not only an accessible city for tourists but it has become a desirable locale for young artists, musicians, and other trendsetters. Berlin is a place where you can learn about the unfathomable atrocities that happened a mere 60 years ago, while also seeing – and enjoying — what the city has to offer in present day. Sometimes the contrast can be unsettling. So while Berlin confronts its past head on, the letters that I continue to read about World War II seem not to confront the political and social environment that is shaping their lives. How can there be such a silence from a Jewish man who has been sent back to the continent on which he was raised to battle a Fascist regime on behalf of America – a country to which he has not fully assimilated? What were the discussions like in 1943 when Fascism was taking over Europe? Why is there such a glaring silence on this subject?
As I headed towards the airport a German man asked me how I liked my stay, and seemed to have a genuine interest in how foreign visitors perceived the city and how they might speak about it after returning home. Before we parted ways he said that now the world is watching the American election and hoping that Mitt Romney would not defeat President Obama in the fall. In a city so aware its political past, this seemed all the more poignant that the world is now looking to what America does next.