Yesterday I received a letter from a childhood girlfriend who has lived around the world. She married a sailor and her military life took her places neither of us ever envisioned when we were girls. As she will retire in a few months, she decided she’d rather write about her plans than talk about them on the phone. And I understand.
When I was young, I loved writing letters. I started when I was in grade school writing to my Aunt Mary who lived in San Diego. In high school I wrote to a cousin in Colorado. She was an extraordinary girl. At sixteen she was the only girl on the ski patrol at Aspen. It was fun learning about a sport I never tried to conquer.
When I met a boy from a different county, we corresponded through letters in between our dates on the weekend. After high school, I wrote to friends who moved away from home. I wrote to the boy next door who opted to join the Marines after high school. Through letters I stayed in touch and learned about living in different parts of the country. Whenever the mailbox coughed up a response, it was always a good day
What I learned from writing letters is people say things in writing they don’t speak in words. Letters are also a permanent record of a space in time, and people write about things that are on their mind from their hearts. That’s why I’ve included numerous letters in my novels between characters. (Also, the only correspondence during the war years were letters.) Soldiers a world away needed to keep their loved ones close through letters. And letters and answers to them gave the boys a slice of home.
Nowadays email. Skype, and digital phones discourage letter writing because we have morphed into a culture which demands immediate satisfaction. Time to write a letter is too long and waiting for an answer is even longer.
But I do miss letter writing. Sometimes I’ll drop a line to a friend just for fun. The anticipation of getting an answer to my letter still does it for me.
APPLE PIE AND STRUDEL GIRLS – BOOK 4
Budapest, Hungary-January 1941—The Rabbi came into the classroom Heidi set up for the children. He waved a letter in the air. “Heidi, a letter for you!”
Heidi couldn’t hide her surprise at his announcement. “Who is it from, Rabbi?”
“Open the letter and find out.” He seemed as excited as she.
Heidi’s hands shook as she ripped open the paper envelop and read aloud.
Merry Christmas, my dear niece, Heidi.
I hope this letter finds you well and safe. I got your letter just a few days ago. Thank you so much for writing. You must be very proud, Heidi, because I do believe you saved the lives of the Gesslers. I hope you are still safe with the Rabbi. I imagine life in Budapest is very different from Berlin.
Life in Warsaw changed a lot since you left. The Germans bombed the city almost to oblivion as they pushed forward. Unlike the Parisians, I’m happy to say we Poles fought back. I developed blisters on my hands from digging trenches and erecting barricades as the Nazi leaflets fell from Luftwaffe planes ordering us to cease or evacuate. We did our best to hold the invaders off, but I our fight seemed hopeless from the beginning.
After the battle cooled down and the Germans controlled the city, non-Jews received a chance to enjoy the same benefits as German citizens only if we signed the Volkliste – a declaration of membership and loyalty to the German racial and cultural community. I did not sign such a document. My reward for not signing turned out to be a sentence to work in a labor camp, but I am holding on.
The Nazis took my poor neighbor Helga away. The bastards used her and other neighbors as guinea pigs for medical experiments. This is the worst nightmare of my lifetime, and it goes on awake or asleep.
Even though my situation is terrible, I am not suffering like my Jewish friends. The first thing the Germans did after they paraded down our streets was to force Jews to identify themselves by wearing Star of David armbands. Then they forced them to live in a walled off section of the city. The resulting ghetto is filled with starvation, malnutrition, and disease. Jews live with hopelessness is in their eyes. I am sure Mrs. Gessler and her children would never survive such terrible treatment. It is a blessing you and she took the children away from here.
I am happy to tell you that your parents consented to take in my children until my situation changes. I rest easy because they are far from the bombs and hunger. I also sent your letter on to your parents because they are very worried about you. Please understand my sweet niece; you are brave beyond your years.
Somehow we all will get through this nightmare. Sending you my love,
Paris, France-April—A year passed since the Nazis marched into Paris. Tension, hunger, and suffering lay beneath the facade of normalcy. The “Resistance,” a small secretive army, fought to undermine the invaders. Unfortunately, the movement only mustered a small irritant to the massive German military regime. Savage beatings and killing of local people working for the Resistance usually discouraged others from joining the clandestine fight. His Maquis arm of the resistance movement supplied the Allies with vital intelligence reports, as well as, created a huge amount of sabotage to disrupt the German supply chain and communication lines within France.
Emma served in any capacity the movement needed. She delivered documents, forged identify cards and carried messages to other factions of the resistance movement in Paris. She never told Marta of her activities, but Marta recognized Emma often got preoccupied with thoughts she wouldn’t share.
One afternoon before Marta got home, Emma heard a knock on the apartment door. When she opened the door, two men clad in black stood with grim faces.
“Mademoiselle Emma Schiller?”
“Yes.” Emma said with apprehension.
One of the men flashed a badge and said, “German police.” We need to carry out a small search of your apartment.” The two officers pushed Emma aside and barged into her home. They emptied drawers, closets, searching all the usual hiding places people used. Their efficient and systematic behavior told Emma such a search must be a normal occurrence for them.
Under a false bottom of her underwear drawer, one of them found a copy of “Resistance” the underground newspaper published by a Parisian group headed by Madame Agn Humbert.
“And what is this?” The officer stared at Emma with disdain. “So, you are part of the resistance against Germany.”
Emma stared ahead and didn’t answer. The larger of the two men handcuffed her hands behind her back, and shoved her out of the building. Neighbors closed their curtains after seeing the strangers in long, black trench coats escort Emma away.
One of the men pushed her into the backseat of a large black car waiting at the curb. Emma tasted real fear for the first time in her life. She assumed her arrest stemmed from her resistance activities, but they didn’t let on the real reason for her capture.
The car skidded into traffic and drove to the other side of the city. They entered a brick building with thick iron gates. When the car parked in a courtyard, the taller of the two men dragged her from the car and hurried her into the building. She stood in front of a tall desk where a SS officer glared down at her from above. “Mademoiselle, you are arrested by the Gestapo for acts against Germany. You will be held here until your trial comes up.”
Emma stayed silent.
The officer screamed. “You do not contest the charges?”
“I will wait for my lawyer.”
All of the uniformed men laughed. “She thinks she is entitled to a lawyer! What an idiot!
The officer at the desk pointed to a door on his left. “Take her to holding.”
Emma was dragged down a flight of stairs and thrown into a cold, dark, cement room with one bare light bulb hanging by a single cord from the ceiling.
“Welcome to Prison du Cherche-Midi frauline.” Growling and laughing the two arresting officers left her alone and locked the door behind them.
Emma sat on a small wooden stool. A thick chain wrapped around her hands and waist was secured with a padlock. Every time she moved the chains pinched her skin and the clanking sound broke the heavy silence of her isolation.
Hours later a tall, burly Nazi pulled her to her feet and escorted her to a six-by-six foot cell. He slammed the iron bars and locked them with a huge iron clad key. He threw his shoulders back and puffed out his chest. In a thick German accent he informed Emma of the rules of the prison. “You will get no letters, visitors, books, cigarettes, newspapers, or food from the outside. Furthermore, you will be subject to a regime of “extreme harshness” if we are not satisfied with your answers to our questions.” He turned on his shiny heel and left her alone, still shackled.
Alone in the damp darkness Emma allowed a second wave of fear to run through her. She imagined how they might torture her. She began preparation for the coming days. Over and over she repeated to herself she would not let her captors discover her role in the resistance movement, nor would she give them names of the others. She intended to die first.
When Emma didn’t appear for supper, Marta’s intuition told her she might be in trouble. Emma often went out after their evening bowl of thin soup and bread, but she never missed a meal with Marta. When she didn’t come home by morning, Marta panicked. She went door to door in their building, asking if anyone knew what happened to Emma. One old man on the first floor told her in hushed tones he saw the Gestapo police put her in a big black car and drove away.
Upon hearing the account, Marta felt sick. Why in the world would the Gestapo want Emma? What did she do? Where did they take her? How will I ever find her?
Lacrosse, Wisconsin–May, 1941—Rosalie and Angelo settled into a wonderful life with their little girl Angelina. The baby proved to be the main attraction at Eduardo’s restaurant whenever Rosalie worked as a hostess. Her proud Grandpapa set up a playpen in the back storage room where the baby played and napped when Rosie worked.
The staff called the baby Angel saying the never met such an alluring baby. The tiny girl smiled and gurgled at anyone who held her. Waitresses flipped coins for who would feed or change her the next time. But more often Edwardo overruled all of them, proclaiming a Papa should care for his bambina. Needless to say, Angelina didn’t use her playpen very much. Rosalie soon realized her baby must be the most spoiled grandchild ever.
With Angelo’s promotion at the plant, and Rosie working again, the couple put away a little bit of money each month. Angelo said they should probably think about a bigger house, while Rosalie just wanted to accumulate a little stash for a “rainy” day.
One Friday afternoon after her shift, Rosalie picked up the mail and found a letter from Angelo’s brother Tony. Tony joined the U. S. Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, and his letters painted humorous tales about his life there. Tony and Angelo shared a close relationship, and Rosalie realized Tony’s letters meant the world to Angelo.
As soon as Angelo got home, Rosalie sat his customary cup of coffee and cannoli from the restaurant on the table. She had propped Tony’s letter up against the cup. Angelo kissed Rosie and smiled when he recognized Tony’s scrawl. He ripped open the envelope and read aloud.
My Dear brother Angie, Rosie and most importantly, little Gina,
Here I am in my skivvies writing to you before chow. I’ll be very busy all day as we will leave port this afternoon and sail the USS California to Pearl Harbor on Oahu. (That is in Hawaii, in case you slept during geography class.) I’m told the trip should last about four days providing we experience smooth seas.
A few guys are boasting about being in the islands before and they say Oahu is like the Garden of Eden. Beautiful beaches, beautiful girls, beautiful sunsets, beautiful girls, lush green mountains, beautiful girls–oops said that already, huh?
I’m seeing palm trees in my dreams. I tacked up some pictures of the place in my locker. Those hula girls drive me crazy! I’ll be glad when this brutal boot camp is over. Somehow I always attract the attention of the DI and end up doing push-ups until my arms want to break. I can say “Yes, Sir!” with the best of them.
I’m about as trained as I can be. Nobody can expect miracles. After all Ma tried for twenty-one years to train me and most of her lessons didn’t take. (ha,ha) I’ll kill you if you repeat that last sentence to her.
While I’m in port, I’ll “post the guard” and be a gopher for the captain and executive officers. While we’re at sea, I will man a five-inch gun on the port side of the ship. (That’s left for you land lovers. Ha, ha.) Hopefully, while we’re on maneuvers I’ll get a chance to fire the GD thing.
That’s about all for now. My seasick pills and my “Mae West” life jacket are packed, so don’t worry. I’m fine. Looking forward to buying one of those loud Hawaiian shirts for you, brother! (Ha, ha), and I expect you to wear it when I get back home.
Give my little beautiful niece Gina a kiss for me. (God, I love being an Uncle.)
Until next time. . . Love you all, Uncle Tony
Angelo laughed as he read his brother’s letter. “What a guy, huh Rosie? I think he’ll never change. Always an eye for the ladies, only now it’s on land AND sea! Angelo laughed at his own joke.
Rosalie giggled. “I don’t think he’ll find pretty girls at sea, unless he bumps into a mermaid!”
Angelo laughed at his wife’s clever rebuttal and took a bite of the cannoli. “Maybe you’re right.”