It was a sad task for me, going through my beloved grandfather’s belongings after his death at age 85, the day before Passover in 1974.
Among the expected items, which included family photos, citizenship and military documents, and many letters from his surviving sister in Buenos Aires (two other sisters who remained in Poland were killed in the Holocaust), was one surprise.
I opened a folded, starting-to-crumble brown piece of paper, and was astonished to see it was a Western Union telegram dated November 11, 1918, addressed to my grandfather from my grandmother, announcing to him the end of World War I.
“Peace at last…” it read. “Love and happiness, speedy return”.
My eyes filled with tears as I realized what that fragile missive represented to my zayde. I immediately knew why he had saved it for 56 years.
Born Moshe Hirsch Inovlodzki in the town of Skierniewice, Poland in 1888, he became “Morris Novlotzky” upon his entry into New York in 1910. “Somehow, by the time I got out of Ellis Island the first letter of my last name had dropped off,” he told me in 1972.
Several years after beginning his new life as a tailor on the Lower East Side, he began “keeping company,” as he put it, with a recent immigrant from Warsaw, Golda Hafter. Golda, or “Gussie” as she was called in New York, was a seamstress — one of ten children, nine of whom made it to the city.
In April 1918, Morris, who by then had moved uptown to the thriving Jewish community in Harlem, received a notice from the War Department notifying him he’d been found physically fit for military service. The next month he headed south to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he became one of the 100,000 soldiers who were trained there between 1917 and 1919.
Before leaving New York, Morris, an exceedingly formal, dignified man, made an uncharacteristically romantic gesture. He handed Gussie a modest ring saying “If I come back from the war, this will be our engagement ring, and we will get married. If I don’t, it will be your remembrance of me.” They then posed for a formal black and white photograph, which was later colored by the studio.
Morris never saw combat, but he did have less-than-fond memories of his time in the Deep South, which was a world away from his heavily Jewish existence both in Poland and New York City. “They gave us ham”, he told me, wincing at the memory. “I wouldn’t eat treif (non-kosher food) so I would trade it with other soldiers for their apples.”
He laughed at his frequent inability to understand the Southern accents of his comrades, imitating to me in his own thick Yiddish accent how they had sounded to him. He vividly described his one war injury, recalling how a donkey once kicked him in the back, resulting in years of pain.
I don’t think it was all unpleasant for him. Morris put together a photo album that I also found among his possessions, containing pictures of him proudly posing in his Army uniform, and several images of others who were presumably his war buddies. One apparently artistic friend sketched a monument and inscribed it, “Erected in Honor of Morris Novolotzky. Survived His Period in Camp Wadsworth, No Man’s Land of South Carolina.”
Then, the day of the 1918 telegram. The “war to end all wars” came to a close at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. (Grandma Gussie may have gotten the timing a bit wrong. “Peace at last declared 2:25 AM” she wrote in her exultant message).
Morris returned to New York, the ring became an engagement ring, and he and Gussie were married less than three months later. Ten months later Gussie gave birth to my father at home in their brownstone building on 118th street in Harlem, later giving birth to another son and daughter.
My grandfather often repeated the sentence: “God was good to me, and America was good to me”.
Despite the huge difference in their personalities the couple had a happy marriage. Morris (who was exclusively called “Moishe” by Gussie throughout their years together) was quiet and reserved; Gussie was boisterous, effervescent and truly the life of every party and family gathering. She died too young in 1961, at age 64, and Morris mourned her loss every day for the remaining 13 years of his life.
Four years after my discovery of the telegram, I put it in an ornate old frame, along with photos of my grandparents in 1918, and my favorite of them from the 1940s, in which Morris is smiling – which he rarely did in pictures.
Gussie had five brothers. I was closest with the youngest great-uncle, Joel. The only one of his ten siblings who’d gone to college, Joel loved playing chess with his granddaughters and his many nieces, nephews and their children. His daughter lived near me, and she brought her elderly parents over to visit one afternoon in 1978.
I knew Joel would be interested in the telegram, so I drew his attention to the framed memento on the wall of my apartment. “You were a teenager at the time,” I said. “Do you, by any chance, remember my grandmother’s reaction that day, when the war ended, and she knew her fiancé would soon return home?”
“Do I remember it?” Uncle Joel laughed. “I wrote that telegram!”
I was stunned. “Your grandmother could hardly speak English then, only Yiddish,” he explained. “I was younger and had picked it up faster, so she grabbed me and said we had to go to Western Union to send a telegram to Moishe. She told me what she wanted it to say, I translated her words, and we sent it off.”
I could not believe that 60 years after the dispatch was sent, and four years after I uncovered it, I was hearing its origin story from the only surviving eyewitness. One hundred years later, on this Veterans Day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I will take a moment to remember not only the end of a horrific conflict, but the beginning of a beautiful life together for my Yiddish-speaking, America-loving grandparents Moshe and Golda.