Letters from War-Torn Europe

Image: Joint Distribution Committee

April 7, 1915

From Vilna a letter was posted to Mr. Arbeiter of 932 North 2nd

What can I tell you about Vilna, whatever it is will only be one trop in a sea of great troubles and misfortunes that this war has brought upon us. The most awful thing occurred in Vilna—with a young couple.

The husband, Leyb Shpayz, a father of 2 young children was drafted into the war. He was in a battle with the German around their border at Grodno and was killed. When he was found on the battlefield he was still alive and was brought to Vilna. Until they got him there, he died. When his wife saw her husband’s corpse she immediately passed out and never regained consciousness. Doctors said she died of a blood hemorrhage.

Two little orphans are left and they have nowhere to go. Meanwhile they are at their poor grandfather’s, Gershon Sievits.

I’m sending you the photographs of the unfortunate couple in case there may be relatives in America who recognize them and are able to help these orphans.

The deceased have relatives in America but no one knows their address. In case the relatives are reached, can you ask if they can support these orphans or can bring them there and raise them. What can become of these tiny ones here in Vilna at this time? The entire city is mourning this misfortune of the Shpayz family but can’t help much because everyone here has a similar misfortune and troubles of their own.

There is nothing good to report, be well, we send heartfelt greetings to all.

April 11, 1915

From the battlefield an Austrian- Jewish soldier writes to Mr. Rosenblat of 323 Reed Avenue, Brooklyn ‘Dear Father-in-Law, it’s repetitive to tell you that the Russians are wild and depraved. You’ve surely heard already about their dreadful acts of murder and rape against civilians and helpless women—this news has surely accosted the world already.

Russian Cossacks do every horrid thing supposedly with the knowledge and command of their degenerate commanders. In time however we will drive them out of our peaceful country, and our citizens will breathe freely.

I’m sending you a photograph showing a soldier being hanged for a crime. The Russians would have given him a medal for his act but our leaders consider what he did a crime and he’ll receive his punishment. A soldier raped a young innocent girl and the military trial sentenced him to be hanged in this field. When the sentence was carried out, it was photographed. I’m sending you the image which says it all.

This is what civilized people do and how wild animals must be sentenced in order to learn how to behave.

Would that the Russian Army achieves this level of civilized behavior already, it wouldn’t be so miserable and perhaps this whole war might never have occurred. If the Russians weren’t such barbarians.

I send greetings to everyone, be well and support our victory, your loyal son-in-law.

From Amdur, Grodno a letter to: Mr. Robinson 123 Lembern St. , New Haven, CT:

My beloved darlings, apparently there are two wars going on—our young landlord was taken to battle the Germans and our older landlord was taken by the Master of the Universe to the world to come. You must sit shiva for one hour because Mother has died. A dark cloud crowds our faces, we haven’t yet finished mourning our beloved father when this terrible war began and our young landlord was called up. There’s nowhere to say kaddish. I wonder if in America it’s the tradition to say the kaddish but Mother asked that you say it because we’ve remained only women here, what can we do? Mother is no longer amongst the living with our endless troubles.

In Amdur, terrible tragedies are occurring, I can’t even describe it. I only hope this letter will find you in the best of health, be strong and don’t forget us.

From me, your loyal sister.

From Sokol, Galicia a letter arrived with a Russian stamp to: Benny Mach of 118 Cannon Street, New York.

Dear Son, as you already know our town has been under Russian command for over 6 months already. We’re sending you this letter via Russia. Until now we couldn’t write any letters, we were locked away from the world as if imprisoned:

This letter is being written without a joyous heart. Everyday we fear for our lives. At first we escaped on foot form the war from Sokol to Lemberg. The Russians shot after us and bullets flew over our heads. Some folks died from fear and some were shot dead by the Russian bullets. Frequently young women were raped on the road, by the Russians. We retreated from Lemberg back to Sokol for various reasons.

In Sokol everybody was robbed and our shops were in pieces. Robberies took place in broad daylight. Our shop was also robbed and we could say nothing about it. We had to look on as we were being robbed of all our hard won earnings and be silent pretending to be pleased saying ‘this too is for the best.’ We are happy not to have been murdered.

Furthermore, the bridge and railway station of Sokol were completely burned up. Many homes there were burned to ash. Only Uncle Zelig Mach’s house was not but further up from the marketplace, Uncle Meyer Mach’s and a few other stores were in fact burned.

We gave your tefilin to Gitl Shtok who fled Sokol and we don’t know where she is now. Your satchel with all your things in it was taken by the Russians on the road when we escaped from Sokol. They took Mother’s purse full of 40 kronen which was all she had.

What else can I write? It’s sad enough that we’ve become Russians in our old age. Hunger is widespread. Everyone is poor, because they’ve been robbed and made into paupers therefore we are Russians. It’s shameful for us and painful.

June 3, 1915

A letter from Grodno is currently in our the ‘Forverts’ office for Beryl Zdonovits.

The letter is a heart wrenching painful cry from Mr. Zdonovits’ wife and children whom he left two years ago. He is a baker by trade and worked here in New York and sent money and letters back to them, the entire time. And precisely now, in war time has he stopped writing to them. His wife and children are in a terrible situation.

The letter was sent to the address of Mr. Epstein 127 East 119 Street, N.Y. Mr. Epstein searched from Zdonovits and didn’t find him. The bakery boss where Zdonovits worked says that Beryl Zdonovits left New York.

Mr. Zdonovits, would you please present yourself to the Forverts and pick up this letter from your wife and children. If townsfolk or acquaintances see him please draw his attention to this letter which is extremely important.

April 6, 1915

War Letters From Russian and Galician Towns To Relatives In America

We ask those of you who are friendly enough towards us to send us these letters, that you write the name of the town of original of the letter, and the name and address of the letter writer. All letters we receive will be returned to the senders. It is with pleasure that we print that which is of interest to the reader.

A wounded soldier from Sosnowiec [Sosnowitz in Yiddish] writes from Moscow to Mr. Gitler of 94 Sheriff Street, NYC:

My darlings, I’ve written you four times already from Moscow and haven’t heard any response as of yet. So now I’m sending this letter to you via a Kiev soldier with whom I served in Astrakhan. He’ll place the letter in the mail and I hope it will arrive to you.

What can I tell you about myself? I’ve been wounded twice, once in each foot, in a battle below Czestochowa, on November 15th. Since then I’ve been in the hospital and have faith that our blessed god led me through the fires and that I will see my dear ones from home soon. I haven’t heard from home at all and I believe they don’t know what’s transpired with me. They probably assume I’m dead. I ask you to write them and let them know you’ve received a letter from me and that I’m alive.

I hope to heal and to be able to reunite with you.

I received the news that war had broken out when we were in the barracks. As soon as the telegram arrived we were sent to the Austrian border. We went as far as Jaroslaw the Austrian town. From Jaroslaw we were taken into Poland to fight the Germans. We passed Radom province, Kielce and in Pietrokow we met up with the Germans. They fight bitterly. In short, in a battle of 14 versts [approx. 1.066 km] from Czestochowa I was wounded. It was Chanukah.

Here in Moscow there are a lot of wounded soldiers from Poland. If I were to describe everything going on here, I fear the letter would not arrive. In the meantime, I am in Moscow…when I can use my feet again I wouldn’t stay in Moscow for even one hour…

I greet everyone, apologies for sending the letter postage due but I have no money.

From Lyubavichi, [Lubavitsh in Yiddish] Minsk Province, a letter was sent to Mr. Weingar of 249 South W. Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah:

To my beloved may you live:

I can write to say that I and the children are thank god in the best condition. I’m letting you know that in our towns so far it is peaceful. For a groshn one can get anything but the heart sinks with grief looking at people’s troubles—the crying of the women and children of the dead soldiers could shatter stone. May god grant the world peace and that this suffering no longer occurs.

It’s already the second draft and my brother’s young son was taken. He’s being taught military service and in a moth he’ll be sent to war.

I ask you, my darling husband to write whether it’s true what’s being said about American ships. Our paper writes that a ship left for America and hit a mine and everyone aboard drowned.

They’re saying here that a Lubavitcher was aboard and was also drowned.

There’s nothing more to say, the children send they’re heartfelt greetings, Khayem’ke will write to you of his own.

From me, your dear Breyne

Here’s little ten-year-old Khayem’ke’s greeting to Daddy in America:

My dear father, first I write you that in town everything’s bad. There’s no credit, everything’s expensive and if you don’t have money it’s dreadful.

And furthermore, darling father, everyone in town has been killed in the war. Noyekh‘s son-in-law was wounded in his head and died in the hospital. Yakov-Lev the capmaker’s son was also killed. He was bayoneted to death by a German. There are a lot of troubles here in our town.

My dear father, it’s fortunate that we’ve received money from you otherwise we would have died of hunger, that’s how bad the situation is here. I need a pair of shoes, as does Leybe. Shoes are extremely expensive now. Shoes would cost me 5 rubles and for Leybe it would cost 3 rubles. Who knows where we would get the funds from?

An American ship sunk in the sea and everyone aboard drowned. Beloved father, if you are by some chance considering travelling home, I’m writing to say you shouldn’t do it now because the sea is ‘mined,’ and it’s a terrible danger.

I would write more but I’m hurrying to kheyder. Be well I greet my darling brother.

From me, Khayem Weinger

Articles translated from the Yiddish by Chana Pollack, Ezra Glinter and Myra Mniewski.

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Letters from War-Torn Europe

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