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November 7, 2022 12:30 pm
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Letters From a Jewish World War Two Veteran

avatar by Joshua Gerstein

Opinion

A Jewish headstone stands amid crosses at the American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, October 11, 2009. Reuters /Finbarr O’Reilly / France Conflict Anniversary Society

Love and Kisses, Charlie: WWII Letters from a Jewish-American Serviceman,” by Joshua Gerstein (2022).

Charles L. Fletcher was drafted just shy of his 20th birthday in September 1943, and served until being honorably discharged in February 1946. “Love and Kisses, Charlie: WWII Letters from a Jewish-American Serviceman” is a collection of the more than 600 letters, telegrams, and postcards, that Charlie sent home to his family. Below is an excerpt from the preface and an example of one of Charlie’s letters.

As Veteran’s Day approaches, please consider rummaging through your own attics. Perhaps you will discover a voice from the past or a family story that can be shared and enrich us all.   

In Spring of 2017, I visited my parents in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for the holiday of Passover. Together with my wife, Devora, and young son, Eli, we had made the trip from our home in Jerusalem, to spend much-needed quality time with our extended family. I’d always been a history enthusiast, but after becoming a new father, there was, simultaneously, born a newfound appreciation and an interest in my learning more about my own historical family roots.

It was this curiosity that found us rummaging through the many boxes in my parent’s attic one afternoon during our stay. Box after box of old family photos and mementos were opened and looked through. One of the final boxes of the day became the catalyst for an unexpected yet wonderful four-year journey.

Within the large box were eight smaller shoe boxes, filled with what appeared to be countless old envelopes, stacked together. Devora picked one letter from the box — completely at random — and began to read aloud.

Wednesday, May 16, 1945

Hello Folks,

Another swell package from you … There are some Polish Jews in this town, and I must have met them all yesterday, about 51. The majority have been in concentration camps for over five years, and they certainly have some stories to tell…God knows what’ll become of them.

The Poles treated them terribly and none want to go back there. When you see something like this, you begin to realize why Palestine would be such a grand place. These people actually have no place to go. They all speak Yiddish and I understood them, just like hearing my Old Man speak it. A lot came from Warsaw, and they say it was a terrible place for the Jews…

That’s all now.

Love and Kisses,

Charlie

We were left speechless, in awe and astonishment.

It was not news to me that my Pop-Pop, Charlie Fletcher, had been a serviceman in World War Two. I had grown up hearing him repeat the same two or three Army anecdotes, had happily listened while he sang his unit’s song very heartily, albeit off-key. But holding his letters, seeing his handwriting, and reading his short but powerful message written more than 70 years before, was among the most profound experiences of my life.

The next few days of our visit found me carefully unfolding every letter, digitally scanning, and organizing the envelopes according to their respective dates. Though I didn’t know at the time what would become of those scans, I knew that these letters and the story within couldn’t remain to gather dust. That is how and why the recently published “Love and Kisses, Charlie: WWII Letters from a Jewish-American Serviceman” came to be.

Charlie’s letters begin with his arrival to Camp Upton, New York, and his induction to the United States Army in September 1943. From there, we follow him to training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Camp Swift, Texas, through to his eventual departure to Europe, in September 1944. Once in France, Charlie and his Division completed 173 days of combat through Germany, until Victory in Europe Day, on May 8, 1945.

From May 1945, Charlie was placed on Garrison Duty in Germany until he was honorably discharged in February 1946. All told, Charlie’s letters are the personal accounts and reflections of a young man drafted just two months shy of his 20th birthday. They are a slice of Americana, reflecting both the significant historical events as well as the often dull and routine existence of Army life. In short, they describe the “hurry up and wait” maxim, which so powerfully defines the military experience.

After four years of work on the manuscript, which feature not only Charlie’s letters but also photographs and historical overviews, I can affirm that it has been a poignant journey back to my roots, enhancing both past and present. To view the world through my grandfather’s perspective at such a pivotal point in his life helped me to better understand myself, my parents, and the person that he would later become — the man I knew and loved as Pop-Pop.

Here is an excerpt of one of Charlie’s letters back home — one of many:

Friday, April 7, 1944

Friday Night and Happy Passover! May the war Passover quickly!

Dear Folks and Edith,

I hope you had a nice Seder tonight. Did Daddy daven well, mother? I suppose Eadie said the four kashis. Well, it’ll be my turn to say them next year. Furloughs are starting over again and if we’re still in the country, I’m going to try to come home for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur next September. You must wait four and a half months before you get another furlough, so it’ll be okay then. That’s planning a little in advance but it’s nice to think of home around New Year’s time.

Enclosed is another picture I took in Austin. I have a few more being developed now and I’ll send them home as I get them. Please save them so I’ll have proof that I was in the Army. Perhaps my kids and grandchildren won’t believe me.

Nothing more right now. I’m depending on you for a lot of my mail because I find it difficult to correspond with a lot of other people, so keep your mail coming. Regards to Grandma. Hope everything is okay.

Love and Kisses,

Charlie

Rabbi Joshua Gerstein in a Jerusalem based rabbi and Jewish Educator. His other published works include “A People, A Country, A Heritage,” two-volumes of original essays on the weekly Torah portion.

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