Brooklyn in Love and at War

History of World War Two Told Through Letters

Posts Tagged ‘Alex

Alex’s 99th Birthday! Blog’s 50th Post!

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Drum roll please…….. This is the 50th post on this blog AND today would have been Alex’s 99th birthday!

Sorry for the long absence, but timing is everything! Happy birthday Grandpa. My grandpa’s birthday is the day before mine, so I’m posting a photo of us during what I believe was one of our birthday celebrations together. Since I don’t have a scanner this is a poor quality photo of a photo.

Here is a cool birthday coincidence: My grandpa Alex was 35 when my dad (birthday March 13th) was born. And my dad was 35 when my brother (birthday March 7th) was born. Each generation was 35 years apart down to the week.

Here is a picture of my dad and my grandpa 10 years ago on March 17th, 2001.

For this special 50th/birthday post I wanted to put up this blog’s first audio clip. However, technical difficulties prevent that as well so consider this a teaser for what the next 50 posts will bring.

Below is a letter that Alex wrote on his birthday in 1945.  My incredible friends and family are getting my 25th year off to an amazing start and I’m so grateful for that. Reading Alex’s letter is difficult because it highlights how far away he is from the people he loves. At the start of the letter Alex is not so happy, realizing that he is alone because everyone went out to drink while he was asleep. He refers to “the boys” a lot in this letter, and by the end realizes that they may have decided not to wake him because he had gotten so drunk the night before. This is a community of men who appear to be both young and caring.

My darling,

Here is once more my birthday. I think my last one was in Boston. At least then I knew that in a few days I would see you. Now its just another day… and the realization that I am not growing younger.

I got up at the usual time this morning. There was work to do and I kept at it even after everyone else was finished. We were painting our tool locker and I wanted it done so that on Monday we should be able to store away all our tools. It was done about 4 PM so I took a shower and shaved for a change and put clean clothes on. I had supper and I told the boys to get me up for a few beers when the pubs open up. They open at 5PM I was so tyred [sic] that I slept like a log. No one got me up and I am dry and thirsty and I can’t even say that I had a few drinks. Its about 10 PM now. Some hellofaway to spend ones birthday.

I think I thanked you and Cookie for the birthday cards, but if I didn’t thanks a lot, you both are thoughtful and sweet and I love you even more for it.

Cookies pictures delight me always. I keep on looking them over, and she really strikes me as a pretty child.  They also make me a little homesick.

They remind me of the sunny afternoons in Knickerbocker Village. At any rate its splendid to see a little of your environment.

We have beautiful sunny days, strange as they may seem for England. At such times your being far away is felt even more keenly. I am never going to live down the caption on one of Cookie’s pictures. You write “I woke up grouchy like you” and did the boys took notice of it, when I proudly them the pictures. As it is most of the time I’ve got to throw them out of their bunks in the morning, a terrible job in itself. But now they all attribute it to m bed disposition on awaking.

Darling, the crow (Eagle) on Cookies arm is wrong. It should be on the right arm. Of course young lady may have their choice.

On of our boys is lucky. We bumped into our chief cook on our second trip. He borrowed ten dollars from this fellow of ours. Now he is collecting it after ten months.

Tomorrow I think I am going to a concert if I am lucky and get tickets. This is the firs of the season in this town and it’s a fine orchestra considering the conductor. So I hope I’ll have a good time.

The boys are lit tonight and they just came in waking up everybody and singing (?) songs and (?). Last night we had a riot in our quarters. I acted drunk and the boys carried me into the  focusle(?). Of course I really looked as if I had one too many. My buddy Mike was just raving “Once I let him go and he comes home drunk… he won’t go out anymore, etc.” The boys told him they picked me up from the gutter. So Mike very tenderly undressed me, took my shoes off and socks, my jacket. Hoisted me up into the bunk and covered me up.  All this while he was swearing that he won’t let me out alone anymore. During all this time I was enjoying all this fuss about me and acting the drunk. Its just dawning on me, that must be the reason the boys must have stopped from waking me up. The saloons over here are opened from 5 to 10PM like all over England. At 10PM the sidewalks are pulled in. So over curfew is even better than at home.

Darling now to sleep. I hope I dream of being home with you. All my love to you and Cookie and millions of kisses,

Alex

**

On a more serious note, I feel compelled to mention the tragedy that is continuing to escalate in Japan. My heart goes out to everyone who has been impacted by the earthquake, tsunami and now the nuclear disaster. It is impossible to comprehend that a country that just commemorated the 65th anniversary of when an atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima, is now amidst yet another nuclear threat. The images that we, the American public, are seeing are horrifying. I look for comfort in the fact that human compassion is so strong that even when Japan was considered an enemy nation during WWII, the US government censored the images of Japan after the bombs in order to rally citizen support for its actions.  Today, we are flooded with detailed reports and images of what is happening on a minute-to-minute basis in Japan and I only hope this will fuel the world’s compassion and generosity.

Written by Molly

March 17, 2011 at 8:00 am

I Hope I’ll Do Well

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My computer is back in hand and we can continue our time traveling!

Let’s take a trip back to the fall or winter of 1943. The last letter you saw was a heated one from the end of the war in 1945. In this letter Alex is still in training and based in Virginia.

Dearest,

Here I am at my new base. We arrived this morning early, and we’re terribly tired. Up till now we had work to do with our gear welcome speeches and being assigned to our company and barracks. Now I am very tired and won’t write lengthily.

Out of the men who came down a group of us has been selected for special training and instead the usual 4 weeks we shall remain here for 5.

I’ve been appointed as the captain for my crew. I hope I’ll do well. We are six in the crew among whom a former member of my old company at Sampson.

The place is a new one, formerly an infantry camp, and the navy took it over, the barracs [sic] are not so nice as the ones in Sampson. When we got here we all felt pretty bad because we were hungry, dirty and cold, but now I feel in much better humor because my good luck in having been assigned to the special training, which is an experiment for future sailors to follow if we make good.

This is my address:

Alex Rosner S 2.c
Gun Crew Polaroid #6
Arm guard School
Camp Shelton
Norfolk (11) Virginia

The officers treat us nice and usually ship out with the group, which they train, and are courteous. I think I like it. They give us here too some statistics which I am sure would make you feel good about us and the enemy.

Darling, I am very dull tonight because of weariness, so forgive me if I am not long in this letter. I am including a few lines which I jobbed [sic] down on my way but which I was prohibited from mailing from the train.

Tomorrow I’ll write again.

My love to you my dearest sweetheart

Alex

***

A two-year jump is a big one in these letters. They read so differently. First of all, the war is still an abstract idea.  Alex says he was told some statistics about “the enemy” which are encouraging. Alex takes pride in his appointment to captain of the gun crew, and they are still getting settled and hearing “welcome speeches” at their new base.  Alex even says that he thinks he likes it at the barracks.

I don’t know if it is because Alex is tired, as he says repeatedly,  or because Alex’s English actually improved as he wrote over the next two years. His sentences are constructed as if they were translated from another language. They are not written as if he is thinking in English. He writes, “we are six in the crew,” and “forgive me if I am not long in this letter.”

Having known Alex so much later in his life – when he had reflected on his experiences and become quite staunch in his political views – it is fascinating for me to see that he was not always so set in his beliefs. The Grandpa Alex I knew was strictly opposed to war and the stories I heard about the Navy were rarely positive. When I was in 7th grade he gave a copy of Mark Twain’s “A War Prayer” and wrote in it that it was a “most precious book.”

In this letter Alex seems young and idealistic. Even though he went through a tremendous amount of hardship before this time his words sound youthful: “I’ve been appointed captain of my crew. hope I’ll do well.”

It is clear that when Alex began his naval career he hoped to be a successful and valuable member of the crew. While this letter is caring and loving, I would imagine it was difficult for Sylvia to read about Alex’s hopes for the navy from her home in Brooklyn with her less than 6 month old daughter by her side.

Written by Molly

October 23, 2010 at 8:00 am

That’s me pushing a broom

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This letter is from the U.S. Naval Training Station in Sampson, New York. Alex wrote it to Sylvia in 1943.

My darling

A week from today I’ll be in your arms at this time. Sweetheart, forgive me if I don’t write you long letters, believe me I am going in circles from work. They gave us another Battaglion (Battalion?) Standby watch and where ever they need work to be done they send us. Today we shined the administrator’s buildings floors, and besides that we have our own work to take care of, particularly because we have had our extra work taken away from us. I received all your wonderful letters, I can’t do justice to them and I am sorry.

I wrote mom and told her the time I’ll be home, I think we still should do as planned and go over to her home when I arrive. I don’t know what will you do about the shows, but honey I really don’t care. The only think I want is to be with you, near you, to kiss you and make love to you. Everything else is really secondary. So don’t worry about that, if worse comes to worse you will go by yourself after I left and will try to console yourself. This will sound lousy, but honey don’t worry we together and nothing artificial will be needed to stimulate us. I’ll be so happy in the Cookie and Mummy and Daddy combination. What else can a guy want?

It is very nice that the girls wanted to present you with the tickets to make our get together so pleasant, that is really friendship.

Poor Cookie, so she has a rash, I am glad you are taking her to the clinic and I hope her cold is a thing of the past by the time this arrives. You can’t imagine how hard it is to imagine her, because I could believe she is as small as when I left her and I can’t imagine her any bigger.

So mummy’s clothes can already be remodeled, that is splendid, and so cheaply too. I always knew that my wife was an artist.

Don’t feel badly about my castigation, I’d suffer hell for your sake!

Don’t send any mail after Sunday, but Sunday send a long letter so that I’ll be to hold out till Thursday.

That’s me pushing the broom.

That’s me sleeping on my watch.

That’s me dreaming of you and Cookie.

That’s me and you at the station next Thursday evening.

My love to you and Cookie,

Daddy

***

This letter from Alex, written in 1943, is particularly interesting because it goes through such a wide array of sentiments in its short four pages. Each page seems dedicated to a different side of Alex and a different part of the life he is leading. Alex begins the letter in a tired voice, apologizing that he cannot write long letters like Sylvia does. He talks about the work he is doing and how he feels like he is going in circles. None of it sounds particularly rewarding.

On the second page Alex becomes sweeter – focusing on his trip home. Sure, it’s kind of uncomfortable to read about my grandpa wanting to have sex but once we get past that this page is a fascinating display of what kind of man he was. He is a little forceful in his opinion that he and Sylvia should go right to his mother’s house when he returns and spend the rest of their time doing whatever they want together. He does not want to go to a show that Sylvia has been planning to attend. He simply says he doesn’t care about the show and she will have to deal with it. He is  also saying this as a loving father who couldn’t ask for more than to be with his wife and child. The page ends with a kind sentiment that Sylvia has good friends. Alex is aware that he is being a little rude and this is the most tension I have seen so far in one of these letters.

The third page is Alex as a father and husband. He addresses Cookie’s cold and rash and then sadly relates that he cannot imagine Cookie any bigger than she was the last time he saw her. This leads him to tell Sylvia when she should and shouldn’t write to him. His somewhat bossy instructions just show how  important the letters are to sustaining his morale. I am not sure what castigation he is referring to his letter. Is there a family member out there who can shed some light on that?

Finally, the last page is comical and romantic. Alex draws little cartoons of him working, sleeping on the job, and dreaming of his family that are playful and wistful. I love that Alex is always wearing his sailor hat in the drawings and we also find out that he slept on the top bunk of a bunk bed! In this letter he is looking forward to a visit home and think of himself in his family role, signing the letter Daddy.

On a more general side note: I really enjoy reading Alex’s letters because of the way he writes in English. For the most part, he writes so well that you wouldn’t realize that English wasn’t his first language. But every so often you can see that he phrases something oddly and I am able to hear his accent and remember a small bit of how he spoke. In this letter he writes, “I don’t know what will you do about the shows…” There are not many solid examples in this letter but you can see that his letters sound formal sometimes because he doesn’t organize sentences in the same order, or speak as casually as a native English speaker might. It is just something to note and I will try to point this out when we hear more from Alex.

Written by Molly

July 29, 2010 at 11:09 am

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The Impatient Years

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This letter touches on a number of important topics. Sylvia is living in her new home. She visited her in-laws on the Lower East Side and then took Adrienne home on the train which was exhausting even though the transportation is fairly convenient. She is looking forward to – and planning – Alex’s visit home. And she shares a bit of gossip about women getting pregnant, living with in-laws and starting jobs.  What I found most striking in Sylvia’s last letter was the detail in which she described the movie “The Impatient Years.” She recites the plot in its entirety – this being her argument that they should go see the movie.

I haven’t been able to see this movie (Netflix doesn’t have it) but, as Sylvia and IMDB tell me, it is a movie that looks at relationships that are interrupted by the war. It is about being married and still being strangers. It’s also about how the war rushes and then stalls relationships. (The tagline of the movie is: They found the answer to WAR-TIME MARRIAGES in the middle of a KISS!) The couple in the movie know each other for only three days before they get married and the husband leaves for war. Sylvia mentions that Alex wants to go to the hotel where they went for the “first night of [their] acquaintance.” (I’m not sure if this is a euphemism or not, or if it was commonly used). This leads Sylvia to talk about the movie and how the couple re-live their courtship. The poster for the movie claims to hold the answers about War Marriages. This, I imagine, held great appeal for the general American audience.

Sylvia lived with her parents when she first met Alex and it isn’t hard to believe that couples often got married quickly in the 1940s because it was otherwise difficult to find the time and space to be alone together. To me it seems both romantic and quirky that Alex, having never seen his new home, wants to take Sylvia to a hotel when he is on leave. Interestingly, this is the same idea that the judge has in “The Impatient Years,” when he wants to remedy a couples’ strained marriage. Like Sylvia, I don’t wish to draw a direct parallel between the movies’ broken relationship and that of my grandparents but reliving the courtship days seems to hold romantic merit. I, too, tend to reminisce about (or wallow in?) the early days of a relationship once it is ending.

So often, these letters are about finding personal space, finding a way to connect with family and spouses, learning how to be alone and together, and figuring out how to stay close across great distances.

Written by Molly

July 11, 2010 at 7:00 am

Papa, father, dad, daddy…

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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.

My dearest,

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,

Alex

Give my love to our folks

Written by Molly

June 28, 2010 at 7:00 am

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Is the boy dead yet?

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In the last post you read a note from Sylvia to Alex. So now let’s meet Alex. Born in Fiume in 1912, he was the youngest of 4 – Anna, Serena, and Eugene – and born very weak. The family story is that when he was born his upstairs neighbor asked, quite bluntly, “Is the boy dead yet?” In his last years Alex often retold that story triumphantly, since he, in fact, lived to be 91.

At age 7 Alex ran away with his older brother, Eugenio (or Eugene), age 13. They happened to do this smack in the middle of the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. They were mistaken for Communist spies and imprisoned with Communists prisoners. My grandpa recalled singing “L’internationale” with them – an experience that would  – if we want to mythologize a little – influence the rest of both their lives.  Their father, David (my father’s namesake), had to travel to Hungary and bring them back to Fiume (aka Rijeka), which is currently in Croatia. Of course, at this time Fiume was going through some changes of it’s own. It is a port city on the Adriatic Sea, a very desirable location, and it fluctuated between Austro-Hungarian, Croat and Italian control. My grandfather grew up in a town with two identities. Before he learned to speak English in America he already spoke Hungarian and Italian.

Skipping ahead a bit, Alex went to Chicago in 1929, just in time for the Great Depression. As he said the last time I saw him (in his lively but slightly confused old age), “Huge crowds were waiting for me when I got off the plane [he arrived on a boat] and they all sang ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’” You may want to know, before going any further, that my family has at least two vices: Exaggerating and (you’ll find out) crude humor.

Alex was drafted into the Navy during World War II - an experience we heard very little about until he confided at the end of his life some of the fear he had felt during battle.

Alex spoke with a beautiful and thick accent. Often inserting “what do you call it” in the middle of sentences even when he did know what “it” was called. He was lovely and caring and jokingly misogynistic, often calling females in his family “woman” and asking me from the age of 11 when I was going to get married. He called me chipichoopie or puchicoocoo most of the time (the origins and spelling of which I do not know), and rarely by my name.  He made the best tomato sauce. I miss him dearly.

Written by Molly

April 18, 2010 at 9:43 pm

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Birth

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Dearest –

I love you…
And if you love me-
Come to the hospital
In a 1-2-3!
______________
Gone to Beth Israel –
Be calm, daddy. – (I am not!)

Love -
Sylvia

(First I’ll call the doc from the drug store.)

2 o’clock.

This note, scribbled to Alex on June 8th, 1943, the day Sylvia gave birth to my Aunt Adrienne, encapsulates Sylvia’s spunk and charm. On my best days I can only hope to be as clever and lovely as she when she was in labor.

This rhyming, calming, joyful message isn’t the beginning of the story and it isn’t the end but it certainly is one beginning and I’ve got to start somewhere. As this blog unfolds you, imagined reader, will read the correspondence between my grandmother, Sylvia, and my grandfather, Alex, as they navigated through one of the nation’s most trying times.

These posts will focus on their letters, the historical context of the letters, and my experience learning about Alex and Sylvia’s lives. Alex and Sylvia lived in the Fort Greene Projects of Brooklyn in the 1940s and 50s. Alex, like thousands of men, was in the Navy and sent abroad during World War II. Sylvia, like thousands of women, stayed at home with a newborn child, Adrienne – most often referred to in the letters as “Cookie.”

I never met Sylvia but I hope to begin to understand who she was as I read and write about her. She has long been a mysterious presence in the family history. She is someone who is never forgotten but hardly known by any living family members. These are the two protagonists in this unfolding story. The progenitors.

This week marks the 6th anniversary of Alex’s death at the age of 91. At a Passover seder that my roommates arranged I realized that the last seder I attended was just days before Alex died, my senior year of high school. I am looking to understand who Alex was as a person long before he was my grandfather.

This blog is about discovering who these two people – who are both typical and unique – were and what their relationship meant. I never knew Sylvia, but she and my grandfather wrote hundreds of letters during the years that Alex was stationed abroad – letters that I cannot adequately describe with a few trite adjectives.

This is the story of one part of the nation’s history filtered through one well-documented relationship. I think this is a journey that should be shared and valued.

Written by Molly

April 5, 2010 at 9:42 pm

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