Brooklyn in Love and at War

History of World War Two Told Through Letters

Posts Tagged ‘english

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.


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



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

The Windy City

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I recently returned from a visit to Chicago where I watched my brother graduate from Medical School. Congratulations, Zach! We explored this exciting city between the ceremonies and celebrations. We wandered through the Blues Festival, visited the Art Institute and took an architectural boat tour.

Chicago is the city my great-grandfather, David, Alex’s father, first came to when he arrived in the United States. He worked in the steel mills of U.S. Steel. How amazing, then, to see my brother become a doctor in the very same town. David arrived after World War I by himself. His wife, Pauline, stayed in Europe.

The federal immigration bills passed in 1921 and 1924 severely limited immigration to the United States. In the face of rising nationalism immigration was limited “to 3% of the population of the United States, based on the 1910 census” ( David remained by himself in Chicago until 1929. During this time he sent money back to Italy for his wife and four children.

In 1929, Alex (my grandfather, the youngest of the siblings) and my great-grandmother Pauline were allowed to join David in Chicago. By that time David had gotten his citizenship and could bring his wife and any children who were still minors to live with him. Alex just met this criteria – he was 17. One might imagine that the reunion, after so long, was movie-like. How amazing, after all, to leave the old world and come to the country where “the streets are paved with gold.” However, after an almost ten-year wait, Pauline arrived at David’s run-down apartment on the South Side and, story has it, her first words were, “You make me leave my family to come to this?”  According to Alex, she always wanted to go back. “She never learned English, although she spoke Hungarian, Italian and Yiddish. She never adjusted to America.”

The family left Chicago by train and moved to New York. Alex told my father that he remembered coming to the U.S. as “coming to a country on fire.” My dad tells me, “He meant that when he arrived and traveled by train to Chicago from NYC all that he noticed were the billows of smoke and fire from factories and steel mills in  Pittsburgh, Indiana and Chicago. That’s what he recalled. He, too, was pretty upset.”

I’ll let my dad continue with his explanation of my family’s adjustment to America: “My grandmother [Pauline] always said that poverty here was so much worse than in Europe. In Europe she believed that the poor were part of a community and there was a culture and self-respect to be a working class person. But in the US it was seen as a sign of weakness and failure so everyone was much more ashamed of their station in life. I’m not sure whether this was really the case, but that’s how my Dad explained her ‘withdrawal from America’ to me.”

Alex’s first job in the U.S. was also in the steel mills as a shoveler. This is someone who had to race into the open area in the ovens and shovel out the debris that had fallen from the oven walls. He remembers that many of the other workers helped him since he was a weak 17 year old kid. They often took his place in line so that he could have more time to recover from the previous “run.”

David (my great-grandfather, not my dad) was a highly skilled mechanic in Europe and took a great deal of pride in his work. But here he was put on assembly lines doing terrible, unskilled, and in his eyes, humiliating jobs. He ultimately gave up all his working in factories and ran a newspaper stand when he moved to NY. It was on East Broadway near Canal. He had a heart attack working in it in 1946 and died there.

This narrative is one of hardship and triumph mixed up all together. While America might not have been the land of happiness for everyone in the family, and without forgetting that professions do not define people, I think it’s okay to stop and think about how in three generations Chicago saw the family go from steel workers to doctors.  I’m so proud of you, Zach.

Written by Molly

June 16, 2010 at 6:52 pm


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