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Katz Letters : France

July, 1944 - September, 1944

Letters from Theodore Katz

GI truk in front of Arc de Triomphe 1944

Ted's first letter from France is dated July 23, 1944. There had been a gap in his letters of about two weeks before that first letter from France, so the exact date he traveled and his route were not recorded. Ted's accommodations are much more rustic than they were in England; he is living in tents, and the weather is either rainy and miserable, or sunny and sweltering. Many of the homes around them are damaged by the war, and Ted is using his high school French to converse with the locals. Some of the soldiers are picking up souvenirs of the German army to send home to their families. At the end of September, Ted is relocated to Luxembourg.

sketch of an army truck in city street in france during ww2

July 24, 1944

This is letter #2 from France – writing from beside a thorny hedgerow which serves as the usual fence for the fields of this section. This for the present at least is my home – a tent, a cluster of thorns, and a hole in the ground – not at all what I imagined my trip to France, planned years ago, would be like.

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Theodore Katz and his wife Helen in an embrace

July 27, 1944

It’s strange how being in the army causes one to lose sight of the whole scope of the war, its causes, effects, political consequences – all these things in which I was vitally interested when I was able to view them as a panorama from a distance become unimportant when one is in the midst of it all. One becomes a little sphere of his own – whose primary interest is survival, and the end to the whole mess. Elections, treaties, post-war Europe, etc. are ignored and placed in the same category as rationing, movie-star divorces and similar minor aches and pains of the civilian world.

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ww2 fighter plane attacking a truck with soldiers on a road

July 29, 1944

Perhaps, if it rains tonight we’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep. Last night was clear and the Nazi planes buzzed overhead like bees – but my complaint is not with them – but rather with our anti-aircraft fire. It’s like trying to sleep in a boiler factory when they open up. However, it’s quite a sight to see – the 4th of July celebrations will seem very tame after witnessing these spectacles. But after seeing it a few times it becomes quite dull and taken for granted – just like the French farmers who go right on living in the midst of the war – seemingly unconcerned.

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Sketch of soldier brandishing a daggar

August 4, 1944

Right now, I’m sitting on the edge of a hay field, while some French farmers pile the hay high on a wagon – a very peaceful scene. However, the cities and villages and farm houses have all but been flattened. Ho [sic] see, any structure without scars is unusual. It’s a common sight to see a family sitting in the doorway of their roofless home (also minus a wall or two) watching the endless columns of trucks and troops and continually waving their arms. – And as long as there is a window left, it is always occupied by the everpresent pot of geraniums.

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sketch of soldier struggling with communications equipment

August 11, 1944

The radio was an additional source of amusement this evening. While we watched our artillery lob shells into an “area” occupied by enemy troops – A radio newsbroaster [sic] blithely announces that the town had been captured yesterday. So we all look at each other and laugh. It’s a joke on the Nazis – they’ve been captured and don’t know it. Perhaps if they listen to the same broadcast they’ll realize this important fact and give up. Wars are won so easily on the radio.

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a 10 franc note from 1944

August 14, 1944

I’m enclosing a ten franc note – worth about 20c – as a souvenir. That’s all it’s good for – seeing as how the only money I’ve spent in France thus far has been for having a woman wash my clothes some time ago. She had red hair and a sweet smile showing both teeth. These French peasant women really work – and they look it. Talk about dishpan hands – this woman had hands as big as hams and twice as red. I’m sure her dress was not from the Champs Elysee, and her feet (size 13, at least) were encased in “dainty” wooden shoes causing the effect of watching a boat race when she walked.

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Cover of Life Magazine from 1944 showing 2 soldiers

August 16, 1944

I’ve just been interrupted. You see, in our present lodgings we’ve been fortunate enough to be sleeping on hay, pilfered from a field, over which we place our blankets, and equipment and cover it all with the tent. I’ve decided that we are the occupants of a haunted tent, - every once in a while we can hear a sort of scratching noise beneath us and upon occaission [sic] a mess kit or carton of cigarettes begins to move, seemingly of its own free will. Being level-headed people Sam and I are aware that this is contrary to nature and the laws of physics.

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photo of soldier on walkway from above

August 19, 1944

As I sit here writing, Sam is busily engaged in cooking a little snack. (sounds awfully domestic doesn’t it). But guess what he’s cooking? Spaghetti! And well might you ask “how can they be cooking spaghetti in such an environment?” The explanation lies in the fact that Eva sent Sam a package of pre-fabricated spaghetti, and all you have to do is cook the noodles, warm a can of sauce, and there you have it. Right now we’re trying to boil some water in a big tin can, hobo style.

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soldiers posing with women in france during ww2

August 25, 1944

As we reached the village square we were greeted by a horde of children all screaming for “Bon-Bons” so we gave what we had, and I asked one tiny lad about 5 years old if there was a piano in the town. He nodded in assent and led us to a house, where we were invited in. Sure enough, there was a piano, and in surprisingly good condition, so I played, they sang, wine and cake was passed around and a good time was had by all. The father of the household entered into the spirit of the occasion and brought out his hunting horn, a very large and very loud affair and proceeded to serenade us with blasts that shook the house. To add to the noise, the dog started howling and the entire scene was reminiscent of the play “You Can’t Take It With You.”

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two soldiers posing in a field with two women in ww2

August 26, 1944

These French bees are the most carnivorous, persistent variety it has ever been my displeasure to meet. They buzz around my head, and have an aggravating habit of settling on a spoonful of food just as you are about to place it in your mouth. One can leave one’s food for but a moment and return to find a swarm trampling down the food and conducting a shuttle system, transporting the food to their nest.

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Soldiers posing for a photo in the bombed out remains of a French factory WW2

August 28, 1944

They showed us the family album so we in turn showed them our pictures. They were much interested in the photos of you and complimented me on my choice. At one point in the afternoon we were sitting in a combination sitting room and bedroom – very nice. The bed was built into a corner of the room in a very ingenious manner with bookshelves just above it, ashtrays, cupboards, etc. I remarked on what an interesting arrangement it was, saying that everything was within easy reach. Mrs. Martin Sr. with a twinkle in her old eye leaned forward and said, “If only your fiance were here now, eh?” This brought forth a roar of laughter from all. These French – toujour l’amour, toujour l’amour.

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Soldier sitting outside of a tent with munitions

September 4, 1944

Of late our setting has been in the midst of a forest primeval, faintly reminiscent of Tennessee and Louisiana. The weather treacherous and changeable at a moment’s notice. For example, I recall bedding down at 4 A.M. one morning, with a brilliant moon shining and not a cloud in the sky. Being in no mood to pitch a tent at such an hour and in view of the peaceful elements, I merely rolled up my blankets, fell asleep immediately and awoke an hour and a half later to find myself in great danger of floating away whilst the rain beat a steady tattoo on my sleep-drugged head. Then grabbing my saturated blankets, I made the mad dash for a truck where I shivered until reveille.

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sketch of an unshaven man in coat

September 7, 1944

I have been suddenly transported from the ridiculous to the sublime in a short space of time. Last night I slept in the mud and wrote of wishing for a warm, soft, bed. Tonight, I shall sleep in a bed – perhaps not as soft as I would like, but nevertheless a bed – a German bed.

By way of explanation – we are now occupying barracks which formerly housed Nazi troops, and they, either not believing in the scorched earth policy or else having had no time to destroy the buildings, left them in a perfect state.

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Two soldiers in a french town at night 1940s

September 8, 1944

After writing to you last night I went in search of the rumored piano – and found it. A big beautiful grand – and, joy of joys, - in tune. It was set on the stage of their theater, and due to the lack of electricity, I played it blackout. So, there I was on the stage playing in pitch darkness. It was a strange, though very pleasant feeling – a feeling of detachment from my surrounding. I couldn’t see the keys but my fingers fell into place naturally and instinctively. I was hardly conscious of playing – my fingers rambling over the keys on their own, so to speak. It was like listening to someone else playing – rather eerie.

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ink sketch of uniformed man in trench coat with rifle over his shoulder

September 9, 1944

The cafes we visited proved to be glorified brothels – with the help wandering about in various stages of undress, performer lewd and lascivious acts nonchalantly and carrying their eager victims off to the “back rooms” with business-like dispatch. A three piece orchestra providing the music for “dancing,” played what they considered hot American jazz, but only added to the bedlam. The place was crowded with troops of all nations, uniforms ranging from bright-colored to our O.D. To add to the erotica d’amour the walls were covered with pornographic murals.

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Group of eight soldiers with three French civilians

September 11, 1944

Then we made a survey of the city and environs, seeing the sights – finally being invited to a dance, Jack and I and another fellow being the only Americans there. We had loads of fun, being the belles of the ball. The music (?) derived from a two piece orchestra consisting of drums and accordion – was nothing short of amazing in its jumble. First they would play a waltz, then a polka – two-step, fox-trot – and once upon inquiring as to the nature of one particularly musical abortion – I was told, to my astonishment, that it was swing. Everything was so strange, even the manner of of the terpsichore – sort of jerky, quick steps. The girls were very well dressed – smart as a Vogue cover – which is true of almost all French women in the larger cities. To my mind the women are the predominant force in France, whereas the men are there only as a biological necessity – very unimpressive, wishy-washy, etc.

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Street scene featuring a bar across the street with people seated outside

September 16, 1944

I know that even in normal times Paris is an exciting city, but a Paris freshly liberated after 4 years of Nazi domination is almost indescribable – a sort of carnival atmosphere. Flags and bunting draped and hanging from practically every window – the variety of colorful uniforms, the smartness of feminine dress and the bizarre vestments of the men. People thronging the wide avenues like Champs Élysée see the signs “Welcome Liberators,” the scarcity of cigarettes. Every few feet another person waves money in one’s face requesting cigarettes, and offering anywhere from one to three dollars from one package.

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bottle of Molyneux perfume

September 18, 1944

It all started as a result of a bottle of perfume – innocent enough, what? A tall stately bottle named Molyneux 5 – I called her Molly for short – but, alas, not for long. Her career was swift – like a rocket blazing through the sky – and then falling swiftly into the abysmal darkness. I had decided to send Molly (our heroine) to you. France, these days, is no place for such a delicate creature.

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