Brooklyn in Love and at War

History of World War Two Told Through Letters

Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia

It’s not as classy

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Darling Sweetheart,

This the stationery I mentioned I had ordered for myself and your mother about three or four months ago. It was delivered just the other day. It’s not as classy as the advertisement stated it would be. But one gets used to anything.

Anyway, Cookie and I are just fine – especially Cookie. She HAS A NEW TOOTH! THE FIRST. To me it looks like a little hole in her lower gum, but Mom says that that’s because the tooth has pushed through finally. She isn’t too cranky or feverish. She has only one disturbance, and that is that she won’t go to sleep until about eight in the evening. I’ll have to continue this in pencil as Cookie isn’t quite asleep and I don’t want to disturb her.

This is just a very short note, but I’ll write you at greater length tomorrow. Did I tell you that Leon’s on a weeks furlough? I think I did. Betty Lampel is coming to dinner tomorrow Bertie Schneider wrote asking what happened to me?

I received your pictures and they’re wonderful. You’re beautiful on all of them. Especially the large one which is tinted. It’s framed and stands on our table! I sent 4 of them to your mother. One for her, 1 for Pauline, 1 for Anna and 1 for Serena. Haven’t heard from her so far, but probably will tomorrow. I’ll send you a long air mail letter tomorrow. Did you receive the package I sent you? Baby darling, there wasn’t too much in the package, as I mailed it before I received the check which came today. I’m going to insert an ad with the NYTimes for work. I also wrote to Jimmy G., A. (?) -, and Nila – a short friendly note and mentioning that I was looking for manuscript work or any typing. Hope you haven’t any objections? Please forgive my haste, but Cookie is stirring and I have to shush her. Please hurry home, and don’t worry about any gifts – this is war and people don’t expect any. All my love, my darling,

Sylvia

***

This is a short and simple letter that serves mostly to give us a glimpse into the daily life of Sylvia.  I’m sorry I don’t have the photos that Sylvia mentions here. Money continues to be a prominent theme in these letters.  I really like the line, “Please hurry home, and don’t worry about any gifts – this is war and people don’t expect any” because it so succinctly links the personal lives of everyone on the home front with the war. Sylvia wavers between expressing her wishes for new furniture or a new item of clothing and her pragmatic fiscal responsibility. Did she just ask if Alex had objections to her looking for manuscript typing work? I suppose any smart independent woman knows not to bruise a man’s ego by taking too much initiative!


Written by Molly

February 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm

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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

Borscht Belt

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(The last letter is surely one I will need to revisit, there is too much to process all at once.)

In the last letter Sylvia spent a long time talking about what Adrienne ate. She mentions the creamy milk and the quarter of a chicken that “Baby” happily devoured. The letter, written in 1944, indirectly addresses the rationing that the nation was dealing with during WWII. Families were issued ration books and points based on family size which served as a kind of currency for Americans. Meat and dairy products were parcelled out sparingly. Companies like Kraft gained popularity with their boxed macaroni and cheese to substitute for scarce fresh foods.  “The government also printed a monthly meal-planning guide with recipes and a daily menu. Good Housekeeping magazine printed a special section for rationed foods in its 1943 cookbook.” (http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1674.html) It also became a mark of patriotism to “go without.” You were supporting the troops by giving up a portion of the meat you might normally consume.  When possible, families started their own gardens (named, of course, Victory Gardens). Of course, as this picture to the right points out, a good housewife would never complain about her hardships. She is a cute domesticated Rosie-The -Rationer.

It is so difficult, sometimes, to understand how many different ways the war impacted people’s daily lives, how much everyone was forced to adjust.  The very basics –  family, food and shelter – could not be taken for granted. Even when you built a family, had enough food, and made yourself a home – it all teetered on a tentative foundation.

Sylvia also talks a lot about how Adrienne misses her father and is jealous of another young girl who is playing with her dad. This heartbreaking scene must have been as painful for Alex to read about as it was for Sylvia to watch. Adrienne is obviously aware of her father’s absence, even though she couldn’t, at that point, have any tangible memory of him. Sylvia must try to strengthen the bond between father and daughter with her letters  and stories (she even devotes a page of the letter to Cookie’s scribbles), while trying not to make the distance between them feel any more painful.

An unlikely father figure in this letter is the rabbi who sits in front of Sylvia and Adrienne on their way to the Catskills. A lot of Jewish people from New York traveled to the Catskills when they needed a vacation from the city in the middle of the 20th century (it was such a big phenomenon that it was dubbed the “Borscht Belt”).  The rabbi is so good-natured about Adrienne’s actions so it leaves me to ponder, once again, my family’s relationship with Judaism. Once again Sylvia is representing a group of people. She belongs to an era, a culture, a popular movement even though you could read this letter and feel like she is completely alone.

We can’t know what movements in history we are a part of right now.  Nor can we believe that we act independently of the world around us.  But I’m also beginning to understand that doing something that may be commonplace (like being a Jew and going to Catskills in the 1940s or, say … being a 20-something with a blog…) can’t be dismissed simply as a cliché.  An individual’s connection to a community, city, country, or culture makes it possible to relate to - and survive in – the world.

Written by Molly

July 26, 2010 at 8:00 am

The Country and Christening a Rabbi

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In this letter Sylvia leaves the city with Adrienne! The letter is longer and more detailed than many of the other letters. If you only have time to read a page or two of this letter, read page 5 and 6. I will write about this letter in the next post.

My dearest,

Your letter was sent out to me yesterday and despite its shortness it was such a comfort. Darling, you have no idea how much I miss you – especially out here away from the family. Well, enough of that – as there’s no need to tell you how much I miss you, darling. You know all that.

Baby and I arrive in Catskill Thursday – and dearest, that was some trip. I carried Cookie and a heavy suitcase and by the time Cookie and I got off the train I was dripping wet and absolutely knocked out. Cookie slept for an hour and cried for an hour and peed and walked and didn’t enjoy it too much.

The trip was supposed to take 3 hours but it took 4-41/2 hours – and it seemed like a year. Out here, Cookie sleeps much better and also eats lots better. She drinks more than a quart of milk a day whereas in the city if she finished 3 bottles I was happy. I give her the plain pasteurized milk from the town and its rich and so creamy – much richer than the so-called rich homogenized milk in the city – and baby loves it!! Last night she grabbed the cooked chicken with both hands and ate it so fast – all by herself. She ate almost 1/4 of a chicken and a carrot and soup and crackers and milk and she was very happy until

I try to put her to sleep. She sings and dances in her crib – so I take her downstairs and put her in the carriage and she falls asleep to Yasse’s (the farmer’s son’s) crooning – and she sleeps out on the cool porch or under a tree until I’m ready to go upstairs – and then I put her in her crib.

It took her a little while to get used to walking on the grass, but now she does walk on it, slowly. She talks to the chickens and gets down on her hands and knees to kiss the cat and dog. I’ll get her a puppy when we get home since she loves the dog so much.

We have a small room up here but we’ll probably get a larger room in a few weeks when some of the family moves away. I’m very anxious for you to come up here after this trip. You’ll like it dear – as ten days here wouldn’t make you irritable with its crowdedness.

Cookie wrote this page to you – to tell you she loves you and misses you very much.

Darling, there’s so much to tell you- like how Cookie broke her milk bottle over a rabbi’s head on the train. He was sitting just in front of us, and he kept praying and his head went back and forth. Adrienne watched his head go up and down – and she was fascinated. Finally she said “da da dad” in rhythm to his praying. And in the middle of his prayer he’d say “sune- da da” “da da” – I was hysterical. She’d pull his hat – and hit him with her milk bottle and he loved it! Then after one particularly hard knock he turned his head and the bottle fell and broke and the milk spilled. It was like a christening of a ship and the rabbi being the ship.

Or else I can tell you how jealous she got when she saw one father here playing with his little girl – and his girl kept laughing and saying “daddy”. Adrienne walked over and stood there. Then she lifted her arms and said nodding her head, “daddy.” Darling it was all I could do to keep from crying … She misses you, dear and she’ll certainly enjoy your presence here when you come up. (and so will I!)

Keep writing me from wherever you are darling – and send me a cable to say that you’re alright! Also, hon, keep on collecting coins for my necklace. I’ll have it made after the summer.

About taking care of Cookie – I love it and don’t find it hard at all. So don’t worry about us. We’re both fine.

All my love hone and write me soon, drage (?)

Io te ama, amore

Sylvia

P.S. I asked the farmer and his wife how much they wanted for the room and the wife said $40.00 for the summer! Her husband protested as he wanted more. It was embarrassing for me – but it still isn’t a lot. I suppose Anna and I will share it. I won’t ask her for it unless she brings it up. Edward will probably be up here in about a week and he’ll love it out here.

Write soon, darling

All our love-

Sylvia and Adrienne

Written by Molly

July 19, 2010 at 12:13 pm

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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

October 21, 1944

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Alex darling –

Your mother paid me a surprise visit tonight, and then in came Anna and Edward. It was pleasant to have company this rainy night. this note will be short – but I am enclosing some of the Saratoga pictures to make up for it. By this time you must be close to home – so I hope I’ll see you very soon.

All my love, dearest,

Sylvia


Love and many kisses from your Mother

Dear Alex, I hope to see you very soon. We are here at your home, the Baby is very lovely. Eugene is in Belgium.

Love your sister,

Anna

Written by Molly

June 1, 2010 at 2:09 am

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She will never pass into nothingness

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***


I wanted to let this stand on its own so my commentary will follow soon.  Sylvia may have gotten immortality as her yearbook picture caption but the girl below her was the reason gentlemen prefer blondes. Unfair.

Written by Molly

May 18, 2010 at 6:35 pm

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Mommy says we have to be practical not beautiful.

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Sometimes Sylvia wrote to Alex as a wife and sometimes she wrote as a mother. This is a letter from 1945 that Sylvia wrote out in the voice of Adrienne (Cookie). Still, she can’t help adding some of her own adult language. At this point Sylvia was living at 133 Navy Walk in Brooklyn. Alex was stationed abroad on the S.S.Pennsylvania.

Mothers are complicated entities. Sylvia shows how in the span of two pages a mother can be loving, caring, forthright, honest, and pragmatic.

Wed. March 7

Hello daddy –

Here are some more pictures of me – Hope you like them. We took these in that park on the lower east side – near Bubbie’s house where you and Mommy used to take me when I was a baby. When you come home, we’ll all go there together to take pictures.

Yesterday Mommy splurged – she bought me a blackboard and chalk so that I won’t write on the walls – well, I write on the floors instead! Some fun. Today Mommy couldn’t resist 2 ivy plants (75cents + 75 cents) and with all this spending she says we’ll be broke soon. Anyway, we wouldn’t have had enough until the end of the month as I need new shoes (so does Mommy, but she said she’d wait until she had her new suits and then maybe you’d come home with some money.) And I needed some new overalls. Mommy bought me 2 pairs – and they’re so damn big on me – size 6! But Mommy says we have to be practical not beautiful. She says I’ll grow into them. Anyway, daddy, I’m still a well dressed baby, as you can see from the photos. And Mommy doesn’t look so bad either. But whatthehell [sic] do you look like? How about sending us a picture of yourself?

Darling daddy, Mommy can’t write you as she had a bad toothache – but she’ll go to the dentist tomorrow and have it taken care of. That tooth has kept her awake for 2 nights now and she’s acting a little groggy today.

All my love to the grandest dad in the world.

Love,

Adrienne

Written by Molly

May 11, 2010 at 12:44 pm

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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