This blog post was written by Megan Dolan, Archives Intern at N-YHS
As is the case with most areas in New York City, Brooklyn has undergone many transformations. Today Brooklyn has become the ‘new Manhattan’, home to a range of wealthy young professionals, trendy cafes on blocks lined with street art, flea markets, and of course, hipsters. During the 1940s however Brooklyn was the suburban home to many middle class ethnic families.
N-YHS recently acquired a collection of over 600 letters between a newlywed Brooklyn couple Shirley and Lester Halbreich, written while Lester was serving as a dentist in the Navy during World War II. Their correspondence provides an interesting glimpse of Brooklyn life before the onslaught of Etsy and craft beer.
Both Shirley and Lester were born to middle-class Jewish parents and raised in Brooklyn. They married on December 24th 1941, three weeks after the Japanese bombings of Pearl Harbor. Like many young couples of this era, their early years of married life were shadowed by the cloud of WWII. Shirley gave birth to their son, Jeffrey Neal, in July 1944. Three months later Lester departed for the war in the Pacific where he was stationed until November 1945.
While Lester was away at war Shirley and their son resided in her parent’s house at 921 Washington Avenue, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. During this time Lester and Shirley wrote diligently to each other every day. Lester, who adorably always addressed Shirley as “Churl darling,” gave accounts of life on board his ship, the Oxford 189, and Shirley provided accounts of their son and his various stages of infancy. In one letter, Shirley provides a humorous account of how, when grocery shopping, Jeffrey, then aged 8 months, started throwing a tantrum after she left him unattended outside the store in his stroller – apparently a common practice at that time, but one that would likely get you arrested now!
In another striking comparison with current times, both Lester and Shirley voice frequent complaints about the level of delays with mail service. This was due to a range of issues such as the censoring of all mail, military invasions, and warfare. For the navy, as Lester frequently outlines, issues such as mail being delivered to the port a ship had just left was a frequent cause of frustration. The importance of mail for morale not just for soldiers but for their family members at home is very evident throughout the collection. It’s hard to imagine in our current era of instantaneous communication via email, iPhone, Facebook and other social media, but Shirley describes waiting for over a month numerous times for a letter from Lester, leaving her wondering if she would ever hear from her husband again.
Even more devastating was what happened to Shirley’s friend Gloria, whose fiancé was also stationed in the Pacific. After first receiving notification that he had been killed in action, Gloria also received, a few weeks later, over 100 letters that she had sent to him. These letters never reached her fiancé due to delays and backed up services. This news deeply upset Shirley, who wrote many letters to Lester about how distressed she felt.
Happily, Lester survived the war, as did his correspondence with Shirley, which is now available to interested researchers at our library. Their letters serve as a poignant reminder, on this Veterans Day, of the many sacrifices war demands of soldiers and their families.