The Last Letters

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The following post is adapted from a talk given by Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives Director Eric Lidji on May 27, 2018 at the Homewood Cemetery as part of a Memorial Day program.

Soldiers write home about surprisingly common things during wartime.

Consequential events are usually too sensitive to discuss directly—put it in writing and a censor will black it out. What remains are daily occurrences. You see a lot of descriptions of meals, of weather, of promotions, of radio programs and books, of new friends, of leaves taken and pranks witnessed. You see a lot of questions about home. How is everyone? What’s new? A recurring subject is the postal system. Soldiers regularly start letters by listing the date when an earlier letter arrived. They are trying to figure out how long it takes a letter to get to the front and whether any letters might have gone missing along the way.

Objects acquire meaning through their contents and also through their context. The contents are the things you see when you look at an object. You can read these letters for yourself and learn about the wartime routines of soldiers. Context is invisible. It requires outside information about the creation of the object—the setting and circumstances and the backgrounds of key figures. One of the main responsibilities of an archive is to enhance the meaning that can be gleaned from an object by providing context for it.

An extreme example of this principle can be found in the last letters written by solders who were later killed in the line of duty. The grave circumstances of these documents give the words added relevance. Every word in these letters seems to carry the weight of the entire life of the soldier who wrote them. Even the most ordinary observation can become unbearably poignant or ironic when it is forced to stand as a final rumination.

The following vignettes use last letters from the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives to commemorate the lives of four soldiers who were killed in the line of duty.

ALLEN CHAMOVITZ Airman Allen Chamovitz c. 1943.
Chamovitz-Eger Family Papers and Photographs,
Rauh Jewish Archives at the History Center.

Allen Chamovitz grew up in a large family. He was the second of five children, and his many aunts, uncles and cousins accounted for a sizeable portion of the small Jewish community in Aliquippa, Pa. Their names fill the membership list of their local synagogue.

Allen’s father and uncle ran a shoe store. Before every big sale, the children would split into groups and canvas the entire town to hang up flyers. Four of the Chamovitz boys became doctors. Allen was the exception. He had different aptitudes. He went to college, partly to prove that he could, and then went to work for an uncle in the jewelry business.

Allen enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces shortly after America entered the war. He was killed…

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