Guest Post – Discoveries in Translation

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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?

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Envelope addressed to Irene (Rina) Gluck

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.

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A page showing notes from Rina’s Hebrew lessons

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. 

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Letter to Rina from Samuel Sojcher

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.

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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.

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Envelope containing letter to Irene (Rina) Gluck from Robert Gelles

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 …”

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Letter to Rina from Robert Gelles 

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….”

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Letter to Rina from Robert Gelles

 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.

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A Letter from Jakob Gluck to Rina, written 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?

Susan Gordon

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Armed Forces Week at the National Memorial Arboretum

On Wednesday 25th June I travelled up to Staffordshire to attend the AJEX Ceremony and Parade in honour of Armed Forces Day at The National Memorial Arboretum http://www.thenma.org.uk/ .

The National Memorial Arboretum is the UK’s year-round Centre for Remembrance.  It is a beautiful place honouring those who have served, and continue to serve, Britain in many different ways. There are over 50,000 trees planted at the site which covers 150 acres. The trees and over 200 dedicated memorials at the site make the Arboretum “a living tribute that will forever acknowledge the personal sacrifices made by the Armed Forces and civil services of this country.”

The National Memorial Arboretum

The National Memorial Arboretum

The focus of the NMA is not only on military remembrance. There are large areas devoted to the Police, Fire and Rescue and Ambulance services. National charities representing those who have died in particular circumstances, including children, are also to be found in the Arboretum grounds.

The day before Niki and I travelled up to Cannock and stayed at the picturesque Ramada Hotel…

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Room with a view…

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The Stumble Inn…

 In the morning, in partnership with the Holocaust Education Trust, we visited Great Wyrley School. Niki and Ron Shelley (our Museum Chairman) spoke to a school group about Armed Forces Week, the British Jewish contribution to the Armed Forces and what was planned for the day ahead. 

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Niki talking to pupils at Great Wyrley School

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Ron talking to pupils at Great Wyrley School

Arriving at The National Memorial Arboretum, I was amazed by the beauty and tranquillity of the site. Ron Shelley first led the school group to the Shot at Dawn Memorial and The Armed Forces memorial.

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Inside the NMA – The Armed Forces Memorial

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Parachute Regiment Memorial

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49th (West Riding) Division Memorial

The Shot at Dawn Memorial

This memorial commemorates the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were shot for desertion or cowardice during World War I. Most were sentenced after a short trial at which no real opportunity for defence was allowed. Today it is recognised that many of these men were suffering from shell-shock. 

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Shot At Dawn memorial

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Shot At Dawn Memorial

 

 

 

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Ron talking to pupils at the Shot At Dawn memorial

The Armed Forces Memorial 

This commemorates the men and women of British Armed and Merchant Services who have lost their lives in conflict, as a result of terrorist action or on training exercises since the end of WWII.

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One of the sculptures on the Armed Forces Memorial

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At the Armed Forces Memorial

The AJEX Ceremony and Services

We then made our way to the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) Memorial where AJEX held a parade and service in memory of those who have fallen.

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The AJEX Memorial

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Standard bearers march to the AJEX memorial

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Memorial service

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Memorial service

After the service at the AJEX Memorial the parade moved on to the Normandy Memorial, in recognition of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

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The D-Day Memorial

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Rabbi Reuben Livingstone the current Jewish Chaplain to the British Armed Forces.

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D-Day Veterans Mervyn Kersh and Leslie Sutton salute during the National Anthem.

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Marcus and Florence go online!

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I’m excited to announce that the Marcus and Florence interactive from our ‘For King and Country?’ exhibition is now online!

Here you can read all of Marcus Segal’s letters and Florence Oppenheimer’s diary with a video and the audio we recorded with Tom Barratt and Kate Lock back in February.

Click here to go to the website.  Enjoy!

http://www.letters.thejmm.org.uk.gridhosted.co.uk/

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A Collections Review and a WW2 discovery

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Last week Frances Halahan from Halahan Associates visited the museum to review our entire collection.  This is needed to help us plan for the future storage and to ensure that our fantastic collection can be preserved for future generations. It is also an important step in planning of our proposed move to the Jewish Museum.

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Frances spoke to us about the conditions of our collection and answered questions about best storage practice and how to treat specific objects and material.

Frances measured both of our object stores and reviewed the boxes, uniforms and display areas to calculate how much space our collection needs to be stored correctly, allowing for room to grow.

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Whilst looking at the display cases Frances and Roz removed an object that had been intriguing us for a while.  Labelled in the display as water purification tablets, we were concerned by its condition and wanted Frances’ advice.

However, on closer inspection we discovered that this object was not simply water purification tablets, it was some sort of World War II 24 hour ration pack.

On one side it it appears to be a wallet with a tiny compass attached.

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On the reverse we discovered a bar of chocolate, a box of matches and a tube of what we think was condensed milk but has corroded significantly.

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There are lots of cubes of Horlicks tablets  and even some chewing gum pellets on the top right!

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The ration pack contains the water purification tablets as we suspected. There are also some tablets to ‘relieve fatigue’ which may have been Benzedrine or another amphetemine that were issued to soldiers during the Second World War.

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As you can see the collection is in very poor condition, with plastic from the wallet decomposing almost completely. Frances advised us to take it off display and helped us to repack it safely.

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Frances is now writing a report on her findings on our collection and has kindly offered to advise us with the marking and repacking of our collection. We look forward to seeing how we can improve our storage and the condition of our collection, and ensure it is preserved for the future.

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Men in the Shadow? The German POW camp

This week as I was sorting through some of our collections I came across a really intriguing object.

Entitled ‘Men in the shadow? No – Men in the sun!’ at first glance the document looks almost like a holiday brochure. Photographs of men playing football, a group of actors putting on a play, enjoying a drink and partaking in a very English game of cricket add to the holiday camp feel.

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In fact, this ‘brochure’ is promoting German Prisoner of War (POW) camps during WW2.  In order to disprove claims that English POWs were being poorly treated like ‘Men in the shadow’ , the Nazis produced documents like this to prove that POWs were in fact ‘well-fed, sturdy figures’ with ‘smiling faces’.

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“They have overcome the terrors of war. Their eyes reflect a feeling of happiness and confidence in the future. After the war they will go home.”

The author claims that the British soldiers did not have the choice between freedom and imprisonment when they went to war. The men who ‘surrendered’ to the Nazis chose life and the certitude of returning home safe instead of death.

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“The men in these pictures have found many good friends among Germans.  They would laugh at anybody who would call them “men in the shadow” because they have just managed to escape from the shadows of death on the battlefield….Their sun of life has risen again, and they are certain to return home safely after the war.”

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The ‘brochure’ is written like an advertisement for the POW camps. It reads as if it is speaking directly to prospective POWs, almost as if they would choose to surrender to join the “clean, spacious, up-to-date” camps.  It describes the ‘’ample” and “high quality” food, the athletics fields, football grounds and swimming pools.

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“For your entertainment there are motion pictures, theatrical and musical shows and every facility is made to enable prisoners of the various nationalities to celebrate their festivals in their own way. You will be given an opportunity of learning a trade or of improving yourself in your profession.”

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“The camp library is open. A great variety of books ranging from detective stories to scientific treatises are kept at the disposal of the P.O.W. In the foreground the American camp doctor is seen making his choice”

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“Those desirous of carrying on with their studies have the possibility of attending schools, special courses and even university courses”.

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This photograph shows a football match claiming to be London vs Manchester game. According to the author, Manchester won 5: 3.

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The document states that mail is sent via the International Red Cross and every prisoner receives one parcel a week containing cigarettes, chocolate, coffee and biscuits. POWS were allowed to receive any amount of mail and permitted to write 4 postcards and 3 letters a month.

The ‘brochure’ also contains ‘quotes’ from POWs, such as Lt. H.A. Ransom writing to his wife in Middlesex:

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And Sgt Jesse Bradburn writing to his Mother  Mrs Al. Bradburn

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It’s unclear whether these quotes were real or fabricated.

Within the same box I found a letter, written from ‘Somewhere in Italy’ on February 19th 1944, from Jess. I originally thought the letter was real but on closer inspection it appears to have been printed.  It is stamped in red over all 4 pages, ‘Truth about treatment of P.O.W’s in Regular German camps or hospitals’.

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The letter contains exactly the same  quote from Jesse in the POW camp brochure,  along with various other positive comments such as “If the treatment goes on as it has been, being a prisoner will be a snap.”  Is this the same ‘Jess’ or ‘Jesse’ as included in the brochure? This letter represents more Nazi propaganda, produced to convince the English that their POWs were treated fairly and respectfully.POW Camp009

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It is known that Germany and Italy generally treated prisoners from France, the US and the British Commonwealth in accordance with the Geneva Convention. The Germans were also obliged to apply this treatment to Jewish prisoners of war who wore the British Army’s uniform, therefore sparing them from the horrific fate of other Jews around the world.  Although Allied prisoners of war complained of a scarcity of food within German POW camps, they were treated comparatively well. For example, ordinary soldiers who were made to work were compensated, and officers were exempt from work requirements. As the ‘brochure’ states, the International Red Cross did ease conditions by distributing food packages and providing medical assistance.

Although it is doubtful that the POW camps were as happy and entertaining as this brochure suggests it is nonetheless a really fascinating object.

 

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New display at the Jewish Museum opens!

Just a small post this week to show you the completed display at the Jewish Museum which opened last week. My last blog described how things were coming together.

The new display case for the cape was assembled and a mirror placed at the back. Here it is looking absolutely beautiful in its new surroundings.

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To bring the stories of the badges on the cape to life, I chose three Jewish servicemen and women who served in regiments included on the cape. These are Stella Cutner, who served with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), Leslie Hardman, Chaplain with the 8th Corps, 2nd Army and Sergeant Leib Lerer who served with the 7th Armoured division (Desert Rats).

The captions seen on the case below, ask visitors to find the badges on the cape and give a brief description about Stella, Leslie and Leib.

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We also put together three wall-mounted cases about Service, Faith and Remembrance to represent the Jewish Military Museum story. And of course, at the far end of the gallery we have the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) Memorial window by graphic designer Abram Games.

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New display cases

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New panels

 

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The whole space looks vibrant, bright and colourful and shows off the fantastic collection we have here at the JMM. We hope this display will help to promote the partnership between the JMM and the Jewish Museum and to raise the profile of our important museum.

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Games and Doris are back!

There has been no rest for me, Roz and Ian since For King and Country? opened last week. We have been preparing the Living Community Gallery at the Jewish Museum for a small display of key Jewish Military Museum objects.. As you may remember I have written blogs about the AJEX Memorial window and Doris Benjamin’s cape. In my January blog they both went off to the conservators to be cleaned before their new redisplay at the Jewish Museum.

The Memorial window was taken to Plowden and Smith who gave it a thorough clean before experimenting with different ways to light the window in its new location. In February Ian and I visited the workshops to see how things were coming along. We met Emily the conservator who worked on the window’s surface and Roger who worked on the lighting.

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With the stainless steel frame removed we were able to see how the window was put together. It appears that black resin was applied to a sheet of Perspex, with the colour acrylic blocks set into this. The Perspex was then nailed to the wooden frame.

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Last week we visited the workshop again to see the finished window. Plowden and Smith have done a remarkable job. A sheet of perspex has been applied to the front of the window to protect it from damage and the colours of the bars look so bright.

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Although the memorial window will be installed in front of a naturally lit window, Roger has designed a new lighting system for when the window needs to be lit from behind. The strips of LEDs are in complete contrast to the clunky lighting system used before.

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Work began on the Living Community space, the interactive table was removed and a large hole made in the far wall…

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Ian and Ash needed to make a hole to reach the existing window behind. No one quite realised just how big a job it would be….

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The window being raised up into its new position. The colours of the medal bars are so much brighter with the natural light!

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Meanwhile Alice, Roz and I were mounting some smaller JMM objects…

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Lastly, the cape arrived to the store. It looks so beautiful. Janie Lightfoot and her team have done an amazing job. Ian and Chris have been putting together the new case for it which will have a mirror on the back wall so the cape can be seen from all angles.

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Watch this space for photos of the completed display!

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