Brooklyn in Love and at War

History of World War Two Told Through Letters

Posts Tagged ‘WWII

Valentine’s Day

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In a special (and somewhat risqué) Valentine’s Day post I give you two letters. One from Alex on Feb. 14th and one from Sylvia the same day in 1945. Alex’s letter is written during a sleepless night and recounts the grueling and mundane schedule of life on a Naval ship. Sylvia’s letter is… racy! Maybe it’s better that I’m getting to know her as a 20-something year old woman instead of as my grandma. This letter, by the way, is not even the most scandalous one I’ve read. But, hey, it’s (almost) Valentine’s Day and you have been warned (I wasn’t).

So here’s to love!

Dearest Love,

Today was Valentine’s day and my thoughts are with you. If you only could see me now! I am writing to you sitting on the toilet seat. It must be about 10M, but no matter how I tried to catch a little sleep, my mind is just wandering around, of course most of the time back home to you!

I am on the very much hated dog(day?) watch on this trip. It’s quite a grind. We get up about 11:15PM and take over our watches at ten to twelve. Then its 4 hours on the go at four we get relieved and we have a few hours of sleep till about seven. At that time we have the costumary dawn watch to which the whole ship’s company turns out. This lasts for an hour then breakfast and a few hours till 11:15 AM sleep. At ten to twelve noon we take over our watches again till four int eh afternoon. Again a few hours sleep if one can and we have dusk watch which also is traditional in the Navy. When that is over sleep again if one can and I can’t.

I can’t write on my bunk because I don’t want to disturb the rest of the boys in their well earned slumber.

Darling wife, how wonderful feeling it would be if this watch would be taking us back home. There is nothing that would be more cheerful than that thought. And perhaps it will soon! I hope!

We had a little excitement aboard before we left port. Some of the boys wished to get the last glass of beer, or kiss their newly made sweethearts in this place, so when the ship was already restocked they went ashore. Of course you can’t get away with it most of the time, and they didn’t.  A bed check was made and six were caught absent. And of course disciplinary action was taken. Fortunately it is not too severe. Well, so far I managed to keep out of trouble and I’ll continue if you give me a letter in couragement [sic], with a constant stream of mail.

Their isn’t much else to write about. We have ideal weather. The sky at night is really beautiful with all the stars. I elarned how to calculate what time it is by observing the position of the big dipper in the sky. During the day we have beautiful sunshine and the air is mild like in the spring. The afternoon we stood watches without our warm jackets, only sweaters, which is doing OK at sea.

Well darling wife I’ll write again in a sleepless night I’ll try again to dream of you. My love and kisses to the little angel and to you, sweetheart.

** Meanwhile…Sylvia wrote**

This is the second of two or three letters she wrote that day. In the first letter she wrote that she had not received any letters from Alex for a few days and was beginning to imagine that he was coming home. Then she received 4 letters at once.  The “Rankin” that I believe Sylvia refers to in recounting her conversation was Jeannette Rankin – the first woman elected to Congress and a pacifist who voted (alone) against the US entering WWII. No other woman has been elected to Congress from Montana since she was. Excuse my use of Wikipedia for this research but reportedly she said, “As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else. It is not necessary. I vote NO.” As it turns out women didn’t need to go to war for war to come to their homes.

Sylvia moves the discussion from Trotskyism to sex pretty smoothly in this one page letter and for that I tip my hat (and then block it all out).

Darling- Decided to make up for not writing you everyday as I had intended. In one of those 4 letters rec’d this afternoon, you sent me Valentine’s Greetings. It made me feel good to see you thought of it. You might have received my Valentine’s card by now! Like it? Sorry the record didn’t (couldn’t) go out, but when you come home, we’ll both make a few for each other to keep during the next inevitable separation. This letter was interrupted by some friends who came by for a short while this evening. They’re swell guys- he’s a sailor (Yeoman) and expects to be shipped out in a few months.  He’s been here in NY for about two years and she realizes she’s lucky, but is getting sick at the thought of his leaving. Besides discussing Wallace, Trotskyism, Rankin, etc. we discussed one of our friends whose husband is a defense worker- anyway, the poor gal is sex-starved! Imagine that!!!! That’s something that can’t happen to us when you get back home! Baby, remember those showers we took in mom’s house last August? Sweetheart, I’m crazy about you! Hurry home, but don’t have any affairs while you’re hurrying! Because if it’s good enough for you, it’s good for me!

All my love,


Written by Molly

February 12, 2011 at 8:30 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.


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

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.” ( 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

Victory Mail

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Ah, that’s right, history! Of late, I’ve been caught up in the love story and the storytelling aspect of this blog. Let’s do some more general historical investigation.

In the upper left hand corner of “V-Mail” you’ll see the “Passed By Naval Censor” Stamp. In the letter below you’ll notice how conscious of the censor my grandfather was. He writes “we are where we are supposed to be.” In more content filled letters this will gain importance.

Dearest lover,

This is a hastily written note to let you know that we are where we are supposed to be and after this we may head for home. It will take a little time yet, so dear, keep writing to me.

I hope we find some mail from home and I shall write a long letter as soon as time allows it. With all my love to you and baby and millions of kisses


I’ll write later.

Let’s examine the outside of the letter. The airplane on the stamp is certainly emblematic of WWII. I’m unsure as to why there is a stamp when the bottom of the V-Mail instructions states, “V-Mail letters may be sent free of postage by members of the Armed Forces. When sent by others postage must be prepaid at domestic rates (3 c ordinary mail, 6 c if domestic air mail service is desired when mailed in the U.S.)” Alex was a member of the armed forces so why is there a stamp? My theory is that the postage to the U.S. was free but the stamp covers postage once the letter has arrived in the country. (If someone knows the correct reasoning, I’d like to know. If I figure it out, I’ll share it.)

V-Mail stood for Victory Mail. All V-Mail was written on this type of standardized paper that functioned as an envelope as well (as seen above). The letters were opened, censored, photographed and the negatives were sent to the U.S. rather than the full sized letters. This saved shipping space for war materials.

On the day this letter was written – October 21, 1944 – the first German city, Aachen, was taken by the Allied powers. I haven’t delved deeply into WWII history thus far but I find it most striking how little the events of the war, as we learn about them in textbooks, finds its way into the letters. The later letters are full of hope for a swift return home. Censorship, prices and pay, the end of the war, and political upheaval will certainly be present in the letters as we go. But when it comes down to the day to day communication, we hear mainly about barracks and chores, baby clothes and visits from relatives.

I find it fascinating that personal letters were becoming standardized. They were such a prevalent and crucial part of everyday life. Everyone’s letters were so personal and so universal.

Thus far, Brooklyn daily life has seemed more present in the letters than the war abroad, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Written by Molly

June 6, 2010 at 11:07 pm

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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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Let’s talk about talking…

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I feel compelled to respond to a comment that Cookie herself (Aunt Adrienne) posted on the last entry. She noted, importantly, that Sylvia wrote that she would call the doctor from the drug store. The note itself was replacing what would today be a telephone call. (Or a tweet, facebook post, text, BBM, etc… No comment.)

Today, after a number of years together, my phone went kaput. It had been acting up for a few months now and it finally received it’s last message and shut off, never to turn on again. I took it to the dreaded Verizon store to see if I could replace the battery. Instead, I was told that “old reliable” was beyond repair.

This has a point, and I’m getting to it. As my dad made fun of me for anguishing over whether or not I should take the plunge and get a smartphone, with internet access and all, I thought about Sylvia’s note. While I couldn’t fathom leaving the store and being phone-less for a night, she had to accept that her cheerfully crafted note would come into her husband’s hand soon enough and that he would promptly meet her at the hospital. I think that, as we read these letters, the patience then required in communication will put our expectation of instant communication into perspective.

Before World War II most Americans did not have private telephone lines. Instead, party lines connected a number of residents to one service. What I find most interesting about party lines was the lack of privacy that the phone provided.

“To make telephones more affordable to working-class families, Bell Telephone and other companies began offering party lines in 1891. Within a few decades more than 60% of Bell’s residential customers shared a telephone line.” (When Eavesdropping Meant That You Had Some Nosy Neighbors. Cynthia Crossen. Wall Street Journal. Eastern edition. New York, N.Y.: Jun 5, 2006. pg. B.1)

If one person was on the phone, someone else could easily pick up another phone and listen or join in. Just imagine the neighborhood gossip! In the 1950s it became much more common for middle class households to have their own private lines.  I see this as reflecting the expanding desire for privatization and individualism in the post-war era. But beware, in the McCarthy era private lines still did not guarantee privacy.

Written by Molly

April 6, 2010 at 9:11 pm

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