Brooklyn in Love and at War

History of World War Two Told Through Letters

Posts Tagged ‘Introduction

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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