This week we have a guest post by one of our wonderful volunteers Susan Gordon. Enjoy!
“Could you tell me what’s in these letters that we’ve just accessioned? They’re written in German and we’d like to know more!”
What appeared to be a straightforward request for a spot of translation has turned out to be like putting together a jigsaw, albeit one with many missing pieces.
The letters, some 25 of them, often undated, were all written between 1943 and 1948 and addressed to Irene Glück of Tel Aviv. Who was she and who were her correspondents – Leo Schönberger, Schmuel Sojcher, and most importantly, Robert Gelles? Why were they writing to her in German and why were they serving in the British Army?
Finding out the answers to these questions has been both exciting and infuriating. At times it has called for more skills in deciphering handwriting than in translating German.
Irene, or Rina as she appears to have been called, was living in Tel Aviv, learning Ivrit (modern Hebrew) and working for a doctor. German was obviously still the common language amongst her group of friends who had all arrived in Palestine before the outbreak of war from Central Europe. Many had volunteered for the British Army as locally recruited troops and were serving in the Middle East.
Her first correspondent, Leo Schönberger, was a corporal attached to the No4 POW Working Unit MEF (Middle Eastern Front). His letter was written on headed notepaper from the Jewish Soldiers Welfare Committee and refers to many mutual friends : Dezsò Weinberger, Mermelstein and Jonny.
Rina’s second correspondent was Schmuel Sojcher, a gunner in the 14th Coast Regiment, 179th Battery, Royal Artillery. He had gone out with Rina for a while. From this letter it seems that her feelings had suddenly changed and he felt that he was owed an explanation.
Enter Robert Gelles!
Robert’s letters to Rina form the bulk of the collection. Learning to decipher his handwriting has certainly been a challenge. While it is initially easy to read, certain key letters h , g, r , s ,d and n are written differently depending on their position in a word or whether they are capitalised. Inevitably it has been the key word in a sentence or phrase that has been the hardest to read.
Although Robert was writing in German, he was almost certainly not from Germany. His vocabulary and usage is typically Austrian and he had obviously been well educated.
In a letter dated May 1945, he wrote that although he had found his father who “… had been through a great deal…”, the Germans had deported his mother and sister. His father wanted to travel back home to see what had happened there but could not do so because of Tito.
I wonder if their home was in Southern Carinthia, that part of Austria occupied by Yugoslav forces at that time or maybe in the disputed area around Trieste and Fiume-given to Italy in 1919 although previously part of Austria. Later on, Robert learnt that his mother had died in Auschwitz while his sister had been sent to Buchenwald or Dachau in October 1944 and did not return.
Robert was serving in the 524 Palestine Field Survey Company, Royal Engineers as a sapper (equivalent to a private soldier). The unit was formed during 1942, with volunteers from Palestine joining regular officers and NCOs from other field survey units. By the time of Robert’s earliest letters in January 1944, it was based in Egypt, at the Middle East Survey HQ in Cairo, preparing maps for the Allied Campaign in Italy. By September 1944, it had been posted to Italy as part of the 15th Army Group Unit.
Researching this background information has helped make sense of Robert’s letters. Obviously, he could not have written directly about what he was doing but it explains his references to working in a studio, developing pictures and even at one point, teaching Italian to fellow servicemen.
“ … it is very hard as they are all English, including the officers and their minds are simply not used to grasping a foreign language …”
His letters show the ups and downs, the misunderstandings and the longings of an intense, long distance relationship largely conducted by letter.
“ …..write to me often so I can feel you are always with me… …your letter was a great disappointment. I really was awake the whole night .On the other hand, I’m only human and people do make mistakes….. could I have imagined that we would be separated for so many years…. Write to me soon. I am longing for your letter…when I open the lid of my trunk, your pictures are stuck inside….”
Getting to know Robert from these letters has been fascinating. He was obviously interested in art and architecture and his letters from Italy include descriptions of his sightseeing while on leave. He visited Rome where he saw an exhibition of paintings by Raphael and Titian, the Sistine Chapel and wrote enthusiastically about Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, Robert writes “…we sat in front of it for half an hour … “.
The letters do not say exactly when he was demobbed from the army but it appears that he stayed on in Italy after the war, in Verona, possibly to be near his father whom he was supporting.
In early 1948, Robert’s father received a visitor’s visa for the United States where a brother was living. He wanted to meet Rina before he left, “…his heart’s wish is to get to know you…”
To travel to Italy, she would need a passport but why then would Robert have asked her to bring with her a copy of her divorce certificate, legalised in English? Did she come and why would she have needed that? Robert’s last letter to Rina is written from Vienna. He was looking forward to leaving and flying home to Rina, arriving on the 6th April, “… Could you reserve me a room in a hotel for the 6th April as I don’t want to stay with anyone I know…”
And what happened after that …did they live happily ever after and if so, where?
Robert’s war medals are also in the collection but so too is another piece of the jigsaw, a letter from Jakob Gluck to Rina in Czech.
The 200 Czechoslovak Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment East was made up of Czech refugees who had reached the Middle East as well as those who had joined Czechoslovak units in the British and French armies earlier in the war. Although it had been guarding the ports of Haifa and Beirut, it was sent back to the UK in May 1943 to form part of a new Czech Brigade.
Can anyone help us to translate this letter and shed more light on the story of Robert and Rina?