Stuff Grandpa sent to Grandma during the war

In April, I documented a counter-protest when a group of neo-Nazis came to Los Angeles.  The whole event seemed like one big costume party, with anarchists and police officers and half the cast of American History X.  This month my theme remains Nazis, but now the originals.  Susan inherited a box full of WWII memorabilia that her grandfather had ‘liberated’ in 1945.

Susan’s grandfather was drafted just as the war was winding down.  He finished basic training and shipped off to Europe at the very moment when his life would never be threatened by an enemy.  His last details was to drive around American officers, to survey the damage wrought throughout the countries.  German officers had left behind many uniforms, and like many other soldiers, he collected souvenirs, which he sent home to his wife and son (Susan’s father).

The canister in which he sent these artifacts might have been an old ammo can.  It has a great latch on the side.

Only shreds of the original shipping label remain, but he also wrote the shipping information directly onto the can.

The shipping label was fixed to the can with this cloth tape, which still performs its patriotic duty now 65 years later.

Inside the can, Nazi stuff!  As I gently remove items, I make brief mental notes about what looks familiar from movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There are two small silk banners, red, black and white.  This is iconic movie-Nazi stuff.

Here is the banner fringe, string wrapped in foil.

And the banner date — 1939.  Hitler hadn’t yet attacked Poland.

Most of the pigment is well intact, but some has faded, like so many of the Modernist painting that Hitler despised.  Throughout the artifacts, it is interesting to count the number of different depictions of eagles .

The canister contains two Nazi armbands, which should score very high on the movie-Nazi scale, but they are green and yellow, so they don’t.

One of a number of medals in the canister.

The eagle graphic on the yellow Nazi armband.  Creating the Third Reich entailed so much design!

A party pin.  This scores very high on the movie-Nazi scale.

The back side of the party pin.  The connection details and stamp are as interesting as the obverse side.

I’m not sure what this thing would be called or how it would be worn, but it is one of the heavier objects in the can.

Here is a belt buckle.

And a whole set of dress buttons mounted to cardboard.

A closer detail of the dress buttons with more eagles.

Sue’s grandfather picked up a lot of uniform patches.  The closets must have been full of officer uniforms, which would have been too bulky to collect, but the buttons, patches and medals were all the perfect size for shipping home.

Many of the patches seem to be related to the German air force.  I once met an old Nazi pilot and his wife, living out in a suburb on Long Island.  We talked about the war, and he was obviously proud to have served his country in combat, which seems like a pretty reasonable way for an old soldier to think, yet the whole time I kept thinking, this man pulled the trigger for Hitler.

Yet another eagle.

Officer rank stripes.

Some other badges, which sort of remind me of Boy Scout merit badges.

Susan’s grandfather was a bit of a shutterbug, and carried a small Kodak Brownie camera with him throughout his travels.  In May, 1945, he drove a number officers to the top of a hill overlooking one of the German concentration camps.

I’ve visited both Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and neither of the two photos looks like either of those.  If someone recognizes the place, please let me know.

I try to zoom in onto the detail of this sign, but there just isn’t enough focus to make out the words.  I can see the word Faszyzm in the bottom right.  Maybe someone else can make it out better.

The war had barely ended, with Hitler taking his own life less than a month before this photo was taken.

During the war, Susan’s Grandfather was a young man, in his early twenties, and he only passed away a couple of years ago.  Having only known him as an old man, it is strange to imagine him on the top of a hill, in his twenties, with a camera.  He had missed the dreadful violence, and was only a witness to its aftermath.  It must have been absolutely surreal.

1945 was such a busy year in Europe.  Just as the war was wrapping up, freed Italian POW’s and French troops would go on to kill an estimate of 6000 Algerians in the Setif Massacre!

The backs of the photos show evidence that they were once part of a larger collection of these sorts of images.

The largest item in the canister is a small set of field binoculars.

They still work, but the optics are terrible.

Here is one of the few medals I was able to figure out.  The back of the medal reads Winter Schlacht Im Osten, and was awarded to all German soldiers who served a minimum of fourteen days of active combat duty during the hard Russian winter of 1941/1942.

The canister also contains a set of the grandfather’s dog tags.

Susan’s grandfather died a couple of years ago.  I had the opportunity to visit him one time, at his home in Florida, before his death.  I woke one night to hear him talking to himself in the other room.  As is often the case, I was battling the insomnia that comes from a strange bed in a hot muggy climate, so I listened to his words.  He was talking to his wife, Perl, who he kept in an urn on his dresser.  The memory of that night means more to me now that we inherited these keepsakes, which he had packaged up and sent home to his wife to share with her his time in Europe.  In hearing him speak to her remains, I realized that he was continuing to share with her in death just as he had done in life.  It was very sweet.

5 responses to “Stuff Grandpa sent to Grandma during the war”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    Wow, it always amazes me to see Nazi artifacts and even more that it happened not long ago…

  2. Dave says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Rogan. The passage of time continues to amaze me.

  3. swells says:

    When I was teaching at a German university, I shared an office with an older man who had Nazi memorabilia in his desk drawer, which my American friend and I used to sneak looks at in horror and fascination. It’s stunning that people still have this stuff. I will be in Berlin in a few days and I’m sure it will be all the more tangible there. I’m sure some are offended by seeing these images, but I think they’re important historical artifacts (my mother was horrified when I visited Auschwitz, for example, but I think it’s crucial not to let it get whitewashed and forgotten). Sorry, obvious thoughts.

  4. Ivy says:

    I was just in Auckland Museum looking at similar stuff with a friend/sort-of sister-in-law from Melbourne. (This particular museum has a very large collection of war things (including a couple of planes) as it is a war memorial as well.) She said to me she had once seen some stuff like this for sale and she wanted to buy it, just so nutbars who revere this kind of thing couldn’t have it. I see her point. It is good to see it held privately, with understanding and with horror.

  5. 3. As a social studies teacher, Susan pulls this stuff out to show to her students when she is teaching the unit about WWII. The students react like you described when sneaking looks at the memorabilia in the desk drawer of the older man at the German university.

    One of the things that I wanted to do with this series of photos is to see the memorabilia as material stuff. We have all learned how to react, in our own individual ways, to the symbolic meaning of these tokens. I wanted to capture the essence of the media through which these symbols were conveyed — the stitches, the fabrics, the patinas, the wool fibers and the grain in the old photos. The Third Reich was such a designed creation, right down to the foil wrapping on the fringe of a Nazi banner. I had hoped that by shooting in macro these details would reveal themselves in a way that adds something new to the old symbols.