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of Captain America’s back story before the film and I enjoyed how the other heroes in the movie treated him as an outdated, all-too-wholesome, naively patriotic boy.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.
In this letter, Alex writes about the USO show that came to his base. The acts that he describes sound dismal but they serve to pass the time and let the sailors hoot and holler. There is a tap dancing act and an acrobatic act. But for both performances, the costume upstaged the talent. There was a juggler, and the MC’s instrumental talent resembled the purposefully poor violin playing of Jack Benny (an American comedian, vaudeville performer an radio/television personality). The mission of the USO is to give the men overseas a feeling of “a home away from home.” And yet, Alex didn’t move tot he United States until he was 18. Does this show reflect his home (in New York or Europe) in any way? He is also older than most of the other sailors, which enters into his letters often. His relationship with these men can become strained. In his letters, Alex always separates himself from “the boys.” We rarely see a story in which he is “one of the guys,” and feels a strong sense of camaraderie.
This letter moves from a description of this performance, meant to boost morale, to the list of gun commands that Alex must learn. I did not type all of these out, though they are posted here if you are interested in reading them. I can’t help but notice that this letter moves from the USO show to gun commands and then abruptly to a conclusion from a loving father. In this letter the violence of war is juxtaposed repeatedly with the nostalgic, cheesy, luxury of a “homey” performance and the loving sentiments of a father. The letter concludes, “The orders on machine guns are brief and I’ll tell you in another letter. The projectiles are beeshes because they are heavy on the big gun – Goodnight sweet, I love you very much.”
I’ve seen the U.S.O. Show and it wasn’t too bad. Of course, 4th class. I guess most of their “do” must go for administration if this is what they can afford.
It consisted of a tap dancing girl who went through the routine. The only thing which was worth about her was her very scanty clothes. It gave a hard on to most of the boys. Then there were 3 sisters on a half acrobatic team with a miserable routine and when one thought that they started it was all over. Of course they were quite shapely and scantly clothes, so there was plenty of applause just to get them out from the curtains.
There was a singer of funny songs. Her voice was hardly able to carry over these easy western songs. She had a long evening gown so, she had to make up with winking and cooing to the boys.
There was a juggler and he was good. But jugglers have to be good. The boys did appreciate him. The last was a woman who played the piano and led mass singing, I prefer our own organist at our regular movie nights a first class sailor!
The master of ceremonies had a stack of stale jokes and tried his best to be funny but his jokes either went over the head of the boys or they were as old as Methuselah.
So he tried to make up by singing and that was poor his guitar playing reminded me of Jack Benny’s violin.
So, you see, for this I almost neglected you. But how would I have known in advance.
The boys are better behaving now, but there is one who is getting on our nerves. But its my fault I gave them too much confidence. And I should know better. I guess I was so anxious to make some friends that now they are over friendly, and they either kid with me or annoy me with their eighteen year old jokes. But I’ll know better next time.
Today we took a 50 caliber machine gun apart. I don’t know the name of one of the part yet, so I better begin to buck up. With the various positions on the gun I am not so bad. Particularly on the big ones. I make a good first loader. I guess I’ll explain you when I come home.
Now I’ll write down all the commands. This will give me practice and give you something to read. OK?
____ everybody runs to his position around the gun and sings out his position in the following order
Pointer switch on –
Trainer on target
1st loader man
5 command is:
The loaders pass the ammunition buck into the boys. Plug man closes the breech and every body leaves gun.
In case any one in the crew sees something wrong around the gun he calls out silence.
At that command, who ever gives it, all mo
Well darling its time to hit the hay. This was good exercise for me and at the same time gives you an idea what the arm guard is doing aboard ship with the big guns.
The orders on machine gun are brief and I’ll tell you in another letter.
The projectiles are beeshes because they are heavy on the big gun –
I love you very much
Both of you and Cookie.
I’m getting these posts started again with a lighthearted and funny letter from Sylvia in 1943. Alex, at this time, is still posted in Virginia for training. This allows for more levity than the letters Sylvia writes in later years. Cookie has added some illustrations of what look like helicopters and airplanes to the envelope and Sylvia sings and jokes cheerfully as she plans for Alex’s leave. She is still living on Jerome Street in Brownsville in 1943. I appreciate what a blatant form of propaganda the stamp on this envelope is. It simply reads “Win the War” and features an eagle with 13 stars. Sylvia also mentions that she is going to a church committee meeting. If this strikes you as odd, since she was a secular Jew, that’s because it is. The omnipresent, anti-communist censor already wields it’s power in this letter and Sylvia knows she cannot write that she is attending a communist party meeting. While she leaves off with a sophisticated code for her political actions she opens with some of her less sophisticated jokes.
Tuesday – 12/14 (1943)
Dearest Sweetheart –
Welcome home, darling. I know it’s a little premature, but I feel like celebrating your arrival earlier.When daddy comes marching home again Hurrah, hurrah We’ll give him a hearty welcome then Hurrah, hurrah Oh Mommy will cheer and the baby will shout And all the damn relatives will come about And we’ll all shout, “Welcome, welcome Alex, dear!”
Oh darling, Cookie farted loud and long in her excitement-And they’re just like her daddy’s. I smell the resemblance! (JOKE)
Adrienne has the high-chair from Sadie’s friend. It’s solid but I’ll have to paint it, and get a new pillow for her little (?) tuchas. It’ll be perfectly all right for Cookie – and she might be able to use it in a few weeks. Cookie stands like this now and swings back and forth.
She looks quite adorable doing that. Fay and Sam’s kid Susan (KU) did this at 8 or 7 months of age! So you see, our infant is quite well developed. Tomorrow I’ll be taking her to Dr. Black – at 1:30 and I can reach him by taking the line at Jerome and Sutter, so it’s convenient too, besides his being a good doctor. I wrote you about him but you didn’t answer.
Mommy took a nice long walk today (some excitement!) because she’s getting too fat. So please don’t say she didn’t warn you. You won’t recognize her tuchas when you see it. It’s 2x the size it was when last you saw it. And she won’t blame you too much if you refuse to take her in your lap – because she’ll squash you flat!! (But baby I can’t wait to sit in your lap and have your arms around me.) Mommy’s going to church committee meeting tonight. Will write you about it.
Want to mail this off to you. Lots of love and some very warm, close embraces, with a few resounding kisses thrown in.
Mommy and Cookie
Today we are looking at two notes from Alex. Both allude to Alex’s location with mysterious clues and little information. Alex is happy to be exploring a city. This is a consolation for him – getting to travel to new places. He clearly makes the most of the opportunity. I would imagine it would be difficult for Sylvia to read these letters about Alex sight seeing. She cannot be there with him, and she also cannot hear about what he is doing in any detail. These notes are unlike the more long-winded and downtrodden letters that Alex writes when he spends long days on the ship.
In the first letter, written on November 24th, 1944, Alex simply mentions that he is trying to see as many “worth while” sites as he can in this “interesting” place, but says he cannot write anymore because it will be censored anyway.
The second – written five days later – is a funny (and beautifully illustrated) postcard that was mailed from France, though we get no other information about his location. The postcard itself is quite a specimen. I write more about it below the card.
Dec. 4, 1944
Again, a few words to let you now I am well and happy. This place is very interesting to see and I am busy as hell to see everything worth while [sic]. So as soon as morning comes I see to it that if there is a chance out I go. And I come back drenched, tired but happy.
I can’t tell you about what I have seen because obviously enough of it would not pass the censor, but so much the better, I’ll have more to tell you when I get home, which is going to be not so long from now.
Darling every day I make [it] my business to go and see about mail, there is none, that is the answer. But now I don’t mind it so terribly much, not because I love you less but because the feeling that this separation won’t last too long. Dearest I conclude, I have duty to perform for the next four hours and then I’ll “hit the sack” my dogs are barking.
With all my love to you and baby and a million of kisses.
(I am not certain about whether Alexs reference to receiving no mail is a comment on whether Sylvia has been writing or about whether they are receiving any mail at all.)
November 24, 1944
Just a few lines to let you know I am well. It is a very exciting stay we had here with all the sights to be seen and things to do. It won’t be long now and you shall hear a full report. I hope both you and baby are well. A million kisses and love to both of you,
It’s fascinating that Alex chooses this card. It depicts two very young boys – both dressed as soldiers – talking about whether they have received mail. A gun lies strewn on the ground next to them and two children run and wave the flag of France behind them. The sadder looking has not received any mail because “she does not know how to write.”
It seems he cannot choose one that would give away his location so here is one that comments on the youth fighting the war and on the letter writing process itself. It addresses how young the men fighting the war are and how their morale relies on the mail.
The sign above the little boy reads “Ligne Majino.” At first glance I thought the sign might refer to an “imaginary line,” like one that little boys might create in the games of war that they play. However, the closest reference that I am able to find is, “Ligne Maginot,” which was “a line of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, artillery casemates, machine gun posts, and other defenses, which France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy, in light of its experience in World War I, and in the run-up to World War II.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maginot_Line) It was named after the French Minister of War. Whatever the reason that Alex chose this postcard, it certainly seems to tell us more about him than the place he is currently located. I wonder, though, how ubiquitous this type of postcard was in France in 1944.
In this letter, rumors are flying about what will happen next to Alex and his ship mates. This letter was mailed from Norfolk, Virginia in 1943. Alex mentions that he likes the Armed Guard and that the men hope not to be shipped overseas on boats. They were scheduled to return to Brooklyn but it seems that was all they knew. Alex warns Sylvia not to get her hopes up about his return. He closes his letter with a reference to sex. While Sylvia has repeatedly written some scandalous notes, Alex usually refrains from adding any of his own amorous remarks. He throws this in on the last line. Maybe I am imagining this because I am his granddaughter, but I think he was bashful in writing this because the handwriting looks, to me, smaller more difficult to read. Since rumors spread “like wild fire” (as always I am impressed when Alex uses English idioms) on the ship, maybe Alex feels like he could become the subject of the next round of chatter.
Dec. 11, 1944
Of course sure the butt “fly’s as tick [thick] as shit” that’s how we carraterize what is going on here now. Everybody is coming in with stories of one kind or another.
One rumor goes that all the arm guards will be transferred into the fleet. That as soon as we get to Brooklyn we will be shipped out on boats. That we will get a 48 hour leave as soon as we hit Brooklyn. Some say 15 days. That the whole base is crowded. That all who come back from a trip will get 15 days and the ship will get new crews. It is absolutely impossible to make sense on all the talk that is passed around. The prediction or another must come true so we all will say that we knew it ahead of time. Of course, no one here wants the fleet, we all like the arm guard.
Yesterday I dropped a little invention of mine on the mail line. I invented the fiction that all who come out of AG school will be sent out to the Amphibious arm 350 at the time. I said that a gunners mate 3rd class told me, and he was told a chief. Well today this same story came back in my own barracs heard that the captain of the station told the 1st class gunner mate, I almost was fooled myself that is how distorted the story became. I dropped in on the line where we wait for mail and all the gun crew captains are there so it spread like wild fire particularly because no one has any love for the Amphibious core. So tahts what scuttlebutt is and that is why I want to repeat, do not build castles in the air. In the last few letters I am emphasizing this not because there is any change, which you might suspect. So far everything is as was before, but there can be changes and I don’t want you to create illusions and then be disappointed.
For instance, they asked at the ___ (?) today 35 volunteers for KP duty. If they don’t get them, they’ll draft them from the ranks, and I can be just as much in the draft and get stuck here as the next guy. They are kept on the job for 3 months. You see if a similar accession would arise in Brooklyn of course I would not sneeze at it.
I am sorry about Frankie not being well, if I didn’t mention it in my other letter, I am sorry but I was thinking too much about coming home.
If you have the occasion to get the high chair from Sadie’s friend, by all means get it you can always place for the few dollars you have to spend. You are beginning to develop a bad tract, everything for Cookie and always Cookie first. You carry that further and you will find that no one will count anyone but Cookie. Of course that will bring other things in its wake you will be jealous of her and pauper her and so on. Next time. –
You to say, it was for yourself.
Mail your last letter not later than Wednesday, it will reach me here on Friday. Don’t wait for me at the station because I’ll be in ranks anyway and I can’t break out, and I don’t want to be tempted.
I love you darling. Kiss Cookie for me.
I’ll make love to you soon in the meantime kisses