This post was written by Matthew Murphy, Head of Cataloging and Metadata
Though it may often seem like an archival collection is a static thing, the fact of the matter is that many collections are always expanding. The American Historical Manuscript Collection is a prime example of this; it continues to grow as new materials are donated and purchased. Our excellent curators are always hard at work gathering materials to assist current and future scholars in their efforts to research all periods of New York and American history.
One recent donation of note is a collection of items formerly belonging to New Yorker Harry Zuckerman. Although the collection only consists of a few items, they tell an interesting story. The bulk of the materials in the collection are letters and postcards to his unnamed sister, and they are addressed care of “Bell Printing Co.” at 425 East 6th St. Zuckerman’s postcards and letters follow his experiences, from basic training at Camp Upton, N.Y. in April 1918, to his pre-deployment in England in May, 1918.
One postcard, sent July 16, 1918, lacks all the things you would expect on a postcard, such as place and personal messages. The only written words are the soldier’s signature and the date. The card consists of printed sentences which the soldier would choose by crossing out the other options. Ostensibly, this was done to prevent soldiers from accidentally providing the enemy with information, should the letter or postcard be intercepted. Although it may seem cold, it was a necessary procedure to prevent espionage during World War I. Thankfully, the sentences chosen by Harry Zuckerman would have most likely put his sister and family somewhat at ease.
The next postcard in the collection, dated October 12, 1918, is quite different:
Addressed to his sister and brother-in-law, Zuckerman states that “I suppose you have already heard that I am a prisoner.” Zuckerman wrote this postcard while recuperating in the hospital at Lazarett Saint-Clément in Metz, Germany (now France), where he has been “getting along pretty good. Zuckerman closes with the hopeful sentence “There is no use of worrying as I expect to be home someday.”
It is not known how or when Zuckerman was injured and captured, but given the date of this postcard, he most likely sustained his injury during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The Meuse-Argonne (sometimes called the ‘Battle of the Argonne Forest’) was a massive allied offensive near the end of World War I. Nearly 1.2 million American soldiers took part in the offensive, which began at the end of September, 1918 and lasted all the way to the armistice on November 11, 1918. This is the same offensive where Sergeant Alvin York’s efforts earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor, and coincidentally enough, both York and Zuckerman were in the 328th Infantry Regiment, though York was in Company C and Zuckerman in Company E.
Thankfully, Zuckerman survived his prisoner of war experience, and the next postcard to his sister is dated Toulouse, France, January 8, 1919. In the postcard, Zuckerman states that he is “in the best of health” and that he “wont be long”:
The final postcard, written by Zuckerman upon his safe arrival in Hoboken, New Jersey on January 25, 1919, closes with a simple but cheerful “see you pretty soon”:
When one looks at these items, they cannot help but put themselves in the shoes of the sender and receiver. What might they have been feeling when they wrote this or read this? Like reading a work of fiction, we connect with the characters in this story, but are constantly reminded that both Harry and his sister, and their experiences, are all too real.
The final item in the Harry Zuckerman collection is poignant, in that it represents something experienced by many of his generation. As King George VI said in his famous September 3, 1939 speech, “For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war”, and this November 5, 1942 Selective Service draft notice, whether meant for Zuckerman or another family member, must have resonated strongly:
Like other materials in the American Historical Manuscript Collection, these items are a great starting point for a future research project. What further information about Harry Zuckerman can be discovered? How was he injured during World War I? What was his sister’s name? These questions, and more, could be answered by the intrepid researcher!
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.