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Katz Letters : Luxembourg

September, 1944 - March, 1945

Letters from Theodore Katz

Marlene Dietrich at a microphone

Ted's first letter from Luxembourg is dated September 28, 1944. He had just been feeling fairly proficient in French, and now he is located in an area where German is the primary language. He is using "a jargon of German, French, English and even a word or two of Yiddish" to make conversation with the locals. While they have access to a hot shower, they also come in contact with bed bugs. Ted mentions that they keep hearing the war is all but over, but he's not believing it. They are seeing the damage from the war, and Ted believes that it's even worse than the media had led the US to believe. In October, he works with some of the other musicians to put on a show for the unit. In November, a few of them stopped at a cafe and pick up instruments there to put on an impromptu show. Marlene Dietrich also came in November to perform for the unit. Ted is often accompanied by his radio when he is writing to Helen; music is an important part of his life at this time.

five smiling men in casual clothing

September 28, 1944

I assure you that two years ago I’d never have dreamed that tonight I’d be in Luxembourg, eating gefilteh-fish in a seminary for priests-to-be. For that is where we’re quartered for now. A huge building in which Jack, Sam, I and three others share a tiny cubicle. You should see this scene. All of us packed in this tiny space, with three double decker beds and our equipment, all crowding around a single candle trying to write.

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ink sketch of buildings and landscape from a high viewpoint

September 30, 1944

As to our abode, we have discovered to our horror that we have company in the form of vermin – bed-bugs, to be exact. At night they crawl out of the walls and search for victims. This marks the first time in my life that I’ve ever seen these pests, and I find they are not a pleasant spectacle. We’ve sprayed an Army insecticide powder about and soon perhaps, we’ll have the situation in hand. Our blankets, beds, and the slats I told you about are well doused with this preparation. In fact the olive drab blankets promise to turn to a beautiful pearl-gray soon. Before retiring for the night, a visitor to our room, would see six men with flashlights seeking out the little pests and making sure that there are none in the bed clothing. Thus far, I remain untouched, but some of the men have not fared so well. Pretty well bitten up. Maybe I’ve got the wrong type of blood, type A.

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group of soldiers standing near a pole

October 4, 1944

Seriously, though – in this sort of life a mind can deteriorate quite easily. There are times – and this is one of them – when one becomes aware of such a condition, and, I for one, do not find it a pleasant thought. Conversation, in the Army, becomes a combination of Basic English, assorted curses, and trite, stilted Army slang, and words of not more than one syllable, occasionally two.

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sketch of two men's faces, both with military caps

October 12, 1944

It’s strange, but in order to defeat Nazism and Fascism, we in the army are forced to endure an existence much like life in a dictatorship – only even more stringent under the guise of military discipline. One takes orders from mental inferiors with superior rank – power drunk individuals who cover an ill-concealed inferiority complex with a loud voice or unnecessary orders, blandishments, humiliations, restrictions, or those “superiors” who hang on to their rank at the expense of those beneath. When they are in error, it is we who pay through the nasal passages.

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uniformed man sitting on a bunk, wearing a Nazi arm band and carrying some clothing

October 13, 1944

There are men in the outfit who send home every scrap of junk they can find – everything from insigniae to Nazi uniforms, and flags, swastikas, etc. and hardly a day goes by that some men don’t make up a  package of Nazi flotsam and jetsam. Whoever it was that said the American Army fights for souvenirs was remarkably close to the truth.

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group of uniformed men in tall grass near a vehicle

October 14, 1944

I once ventured into a discussion with some of the officers on the negro question with a dash of labor problem thrown in. The intolerance, ignorance and stupidity was appalling. I found one kindred soul in Lt. Landry – he seems to be the only human officer we have. These officers too, are quite a collection of characters – one a seemingly emasculated, self-styled Southern aristocrat, another who would make a perfect Nazi storm-trooper, one with a Napoleanic complex with an inherent Georgia complex and maxim, that lynching is the only way to solve the Negro problem.

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a band of four men playing instruments

October 29, 1944

This afternoon, I took a stroll during which time I ran across a barracks full of Russian civilian refugees. They had been dragged from their homes and sent to various parts of Europe to work at various Nazi enterprises. The group was compose[d] of men, women and even little boys and girls. Now they’re just waiting for the war to end so they can go home. They could speak only Russian and a little German, so you can see that the conversation was limited. And though they were unable to relate their experiences to me, I could tell from their appearance and furtive expressions that it was far from pleasant.

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sketch of man in casual clothing with rifle

October 31, 1944

I’m enclosing some sketches of some of the Russian refugees I’ve already told you about. They are a fairly typical representation – especially the woman – true peasant types – buxom Amazons. Now that I have reopened my artistic course, I’ll try to keep the pace I set at the outset, in Tennessee.

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band of men in formal clothing with instruments

November 3, 1944

Last night, while on pass with some of the boys, I stopped in at a small café where, we, being true boulevardiers and the price being extremely reasonable, we sat and sipped champagne. The bistro was also equipped with a large, grand piano – and, of course, I couldn’t resist the temptation. I hadn’t played more than a couple of choruses when a swarm of GIs laden with musical instruments streamed into the place, set up in short order, and there we had a band. Three saxes, two trumpets, two trombones, drums, bass, guitar and yours truly.

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man in uniform standing on a rocky point overlooking a valley

November 8, 1944

Of course, the most interesting news of the day is Roosevelt’s re-election – and I, for one, am glad that the war effort and the peace to come soon will be under his direction. I cannot see how the outcome could have been any different. From what I could deduce of the campaign, the Republican Party had offered nothing new or constructive, had not shown the unity vitally necessary during these times, and their candidate seemed utterly lacking in experience, leadership and statescraft.

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four uniformed men sitting on a jeep

November 9, 1944

The jeep has probably been the most widely publicized mechanical instrument of the war – a glamorous little vehicle that overcomes all obstacles at high speeds, regardless of terrain. Today, however, I made an interesting discovery. It is strictly a one season vehicle – namely summer, and as it is now winter (snow today), I found myself cursing the mind that dreamed it up, as I rode a mere hundred miles or so, with the top down and the all-draft ventilation working perfectly – the wind strong enough to almost lift the heavy steel helmet from your head, and the wind cutting through an overcoat as thought it were cheesecloth, the mud playfully splashing and coating the vehicle, inside as well as out. All in all, such a pleasant ride.

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group of soldiers with three civilians outside a building

November 13, 1944

But, tonight my cup floweth over. In front of me I have 4 letters, and a wonderful package from you. It arrived in fine condition, a tribute to your wrapping ability and the laws of chance.

Upon delving into the contents, I find all sorts of wonderful things – tasty foods and practical items such as the mirror, soap dish and toothbrush. I couldn’t have asked for anything better – and if you were here at this moment I would “reward” you until you hollered “Uncle” – and then I would start all over again. The little notes attached to each item were the finishing touch – I got such a kick out of them.

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Marlene Dietrich at a microphone

November 20, 1944

Marlene Dietrich has just walked by – being here to entertain the boys -  wearing GI clothes replete with  helmet, looking very unglamorous. I, being [in] charge of quarters, will unfortunately miss the show. But I don’t think it’ll be a great loss.

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man sitting in a chair next to bunk beds, writing a letter

December 24, 1944

The room is large – far too large to be illuminated by the candle which furnishes the light necessary for writing this letter, and far too large to be heated by the make-shift stove set over in a corner – the amount of smoke eclipsing the degree of heat which struggles in vain against the quiet cold. The room as well as the building bears the scars of war – gaping holes in the roof, bare laths in the ceiling where the plaster is missing. Some men cluster about the tiny stove, smoking and talking quietly in the dark. Looking past them and through the window, the bright moonlight reflects off the snow and the stars are bright.

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many soldiers on two long tables eating dinner indoors

January 1, 1945

Tom asked her to sit while he sketched her portrait and with obvious vanity she acquiesced. I carried on at the piano while Tom sketched and talked to her. When he finished, I looked at the sketch and then at him with raised eyebrows – for it was obvious flattery to the point where [it] didn’t resemble her. But his glance told me that this was intentional and I could see what was up. He’s always had a phobia for bizarre women and this was what he called an “in.” His technique was truly admirable and in no time he had made a date to do another “portrait” the following day and the two of them were gaily carrying on like old pals.

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five uniformed men standing outdoors, holding their helmets

January 19, 1945

I’ve just washed up and shaved. Of course, there’s nothing remarkable about that – but, just to give you an insight into how a gentleman of these parts, who might be included in this direction, would go about it, I will unfold the picture.

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five men seated outdoors near a tree

January 31, 1945

Now, first I must give you an inkling of what G.I. grapefruit juice is like. It looks like any other grapefruit juice – but all is not gold that glitters. First of all it is unsweetened, very sour and eceedingly [sic] strong. It’s usually given to us, on purpose it seems, only on cold dark mornings. (The cold seems to enhance its strength.) One sip is enough to make the strongest man turn pale. It’s like drinking lye full strength. The first shock of it coursing down your throat results in a stiffening of the limbs, a startled expression on the face followed by a horrible grimace, gasping for breath and a clutching of the throat and then – a violent shudder and quick flip of the wrist to rid the canteen cup of its presence as quickly as possible.

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Helen and Ted in casual clothing standing outdoors

February 6, 1945

So, cheer up and next time you go by Zlotnicks, stop and take a good look at that big while bear and you’ll feel much better. In fact, I’ve been thinking of acquiring him for future use. How do you think he’ll look on the piano, or perhaps hanging by his heels from the chandelier – and we can always use him for a fourth for bridge – dummy, of course. – But, if he ever gives me that “Somebody’s been eating my porridge” – out he goes.

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a group of men in front of a damaged building with piles of bottles on the ground

February 7, 1945

There isn’t much to write of – but rain and mud – and I’ve already written so much on this subject that I feel qualified to write the section devoted to it by the Encyclopedia Brittanica – or Child Life, at least. Right now any efforts are being distracted by a bunch of the men trying to open a barrel of German beer – all noise and confusion – each one claiming to be an expert keg-opener. I’m afraid that in desperation someone will soon take an ax to it.

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two men standing behind some bushes and in front of a stone building

February 18, 1945

In lieu of wandering about in the rain, we stopped at the first café we encountered. A small place situated opposite a bridge which had been blown up and repaired hurriedly, it seemed – for it looked more like a roller coaster. As we entered the café I was mildly surprised to observe a motorcycle in the center of the room and the proprietor tinkering with its entrails scattered about the floor. In one corner, a young fellow who proved to be the proprietors’ son was given accordion lessons.

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a cardboard box containing many letters in their envelopes

February 24, 1945

Now with an after-snack cigarette at hand, the pad of paper on my knee, and some water heating over the fire, I sit and write letter No. X to you. I wonder how many letters I’ve written to you since I sent my first missive on a blotter, wasn’t it? By a rough calculation I figure it should be about 350-400. Now that’s an awful lot of letters – or perhaps I’ve over-estimated. Anyway, the point is that I never would have believed that I’d write that much mail to one person – or even that my entire correspondence would total that much – for I was always a notoriously poor correspondent.

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a woman sitting on a man's lap in an armchair, reading a book together

March 3, 1945

Last night, for the first time since I’ve been overseas – I had a Coca-Cola! – Rationed to one bottle per man, mine disappeared in almost one gulp – hardly enough to even tell whether I’d forgotten the taste or not – what little touched my palate tasted odd – but pleasant in an atavistic sort of way.

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uniformed men with helmets on, eating a meal outside a building and tent and next to a jeep

March 5, 1945

Meanwhile, the grind grinds on – punctuated by an occasional pass – usually unsatisfactory – but sometimes very pleasant like the time I was able to get back to Luxembourg City and visit some of the friends I’d made. I visited two different families and my welcome was such that I can only say that it will be surpassed only when I get home.

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helmeted man in back of a vehicle that has a canvas top

March 12, 1945

Of all the equipment I am burdened with, I have come to the inevitable conclusion that for all-around utilisation and fuctionalism, my helmet like Abou-Ben-Adam, leads all the rest.

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