The Reuben Berman Family: "Dear Poppa"
Dr. Reuben Berman of Minneapolis was stationed in Europe from June 1943 until September 1945, where his assignment was to investigate German medical research facilities. He wrote frequently to his wife, Isabel, and four children, David, Betsy, Sammy, and Ruth Amelia, who responded with lively letters detailing their daily activities. The children dictated most of their letters to their mother, who faithfully typed them up on V-Mail forms, and often included drawings. Occasionally Isabel sent movie footage or audio recordings of the children speaking or playing musical instruments. The family endured the separation from one another with humor and wisdom, as seen in the following excerpts. View original letters.
September 11, 1943
Today I received two letters from you, one dated the third and one the fourth of September. That is pretty good service. I love your comment on the effect of V mail on the legibility of your letters. Reuben, my darling, the trouble is with you. Your writing is practically illegible to most people irregodless. Please use V mail. I have a filing system. I put all your V mail letters on a safety pin. When people come over and say, "What do you hear from Reuben?" I just hand them the file and they read to their heart's content. The hand written letters don't fit into the filing system.
David has been working hard for the school paper sale. He says he is doing it for the school and for the war. David was afraid to ask the lady next door because she has lectured the children so many times about noise. David calls her Mrs. Turkey because she looks like one. But Betsy went right over and asked her if she had any papers for the school and for the war. She said there were so many that David should come over. Now David no longer calls her Mrs. Turkey, but Mrs. Mark, which is her name. Yesterday, Betsy as class president called for news and then volunteered this. When the officers who are in Europe now have beaten Germany they will come back here and those who are here now will go and beat Japan. Peter saw Diane in the drug store the other day. He went up to her and said seriously, "Diane, I am not your boy friend. I am Roger's boy friend."
August 31, 1943
We got the sand for our sand box yesterday but we did not get enough. I told her to get three bags and she got only two. I think four would be enough. Betsy is kind of crabby because you are not here, same with Sammy.
Mommy won't let me get a dog even if I buy it with my own money. (What do you think I've been saving up for. I didn't save for some measly old games.) You write a letter to Mommy and get real mad and say, Isabel, you buy David a dog. I will go down on my bike to the butcher shop and get dog food for it and I will teach it how to do tricks.
I'd like to go to England but only for two or three months because I do not like unamerican accents.
We all have tinker toy sets except Betsy and Ruth Amelia. I made Betsy and Sammy a wheel that turns around and is on a stand. I hope you are having a nice time in England or did I say that before in another letter.
September 21, 1943
2d Bombardment Division, APO 634 NYC
I have written to Isabel about the dog. I think you should have it and that is what I said. But I am afraid you will have to wait until I get home to buy it for you. The way the Russians are rushing through the Ukraine and we are pushing the Germans in Italy, perhaps you won't have too long to wait for your dog.
You must keep yourself posted about this war by reading the newspapers. When you are grown up you may be in a position to help prevent another war.
March 7, 1944
39th Service Group
APO 639 NYC
Yesterday came the records. Playing these was like a visit home. You tell the children that I enjoyed them all, the jokes and singing, Betsy's piano playing, David's clarineting, Sammy's sweet voice, your master-of-ceremonying. It was the best package I've had since the movies. The records came all safe and sound in their paper buffing. I also got a package from Gramma Sarah, some photographs and a salami. Will you call her and tell her it arrived? I just wrote her too before the pkg. arrived. Salamis should be small and sent whole. They keep better than when cut to fit a package as Sarah did. But a little extra mold just adds to the flavor. I'll thank her myself in a few days. it's strange that with slow mail service the packages come through at all.
May 15, 1944
Saw the wonderful movie "Watch on the Rhine" last evening. Lucas and Davis starred in it, performing the portrayal of the Rhinelanders. The infant prodigy was excellent. But the parting scene of the farmer and his 3 children was almost too much for me. It was too close to home.
David, which is bigger - one pound of ice or one pound of water?
Betsy, which is heavier - a pound of feathers or a pound of butter?
Sammy, which is longer - a thousand miles or a year in England?
Ruth Amelia, are you a good baby?
May 27, 1944
What with one thing and another I have let at least ten days go by without writing you a letter myself. I have typed out a few for the children.
David knew that the pound of ice was bigger. Betsy fell for the pound of butter. Sammy thought a thousand miles was longer. Ruth Amelia thinks she is a good baby. She says, "Ta good, ta good, ta good, ta good." If you tell her she is a bad baby she gives you a gentle snarl.
Sammy is very insulted when David hits even him, even though David has a good deal of provocation. Peter says, "Poppa would not hit a little boy. Abraham Lincoln would not hit a little boy."
June 19, 1944
If I seem to write to you quite often, oftener than I have things to say, it's because I love to get your letters. And one good way to get letters is to write them.
I suppose a good practical poppa whose son thought he was like Abraham Lincoln would go ahead and say "Oh no! I'm not a bit like Abraham Lincoln!" He would say "I have a lot of faults. I like to sleep in bed late Sunday mornings. I sometimes spank my children." but me, I'm not going to say those things. It makes me very proud to think that I have a boy at home in Minneapolis, a boy at home who thinks that I am like Abraham Lincoln. Time enough to disillusion him when or rather if I get home. So I'll promise you this, my own son Sammy: never again should Poppa spank you. You are now spankproof against Poppa. I will request you to do things, I will argue with you, cajole, even perhaps threaten; I will use psychological warfare. But never shall I spank. It's a promise.
June 20, 1944
You aren't like Abraham Lincoln but you're almost like Abraham Lincoln. There's only one thing that's not like Abraham Lincoln. It's to spank. But if Abraham Lincoln spanked I would say you were just like Abraham Lincoln, just exactly.
I'll smile when you come home and I'll give you a big kiss and a hug. I might even have a surprise for you but I don't want to ever tell you. It's something good to eat.
September 20, 1944
I weigh fifty pounds.
School starte sept 6th.
If I had wings like an angel I would take some bombs and fli over to germany and japen and bom them. then you could come home sooner. I want you most of all.
When sammy said that you were just like abraham lincoln he was right.
October 5, 1944
Your letter that just came was the very best yet. I am very proud of your letters and your drawings. They show that you have improved a great deal in your handwork the past few months.
If I had wings like an angel, I wouldn't fly over Germany and Japan. I'd fly over the ocean and circle for a landing at 3528 Holmes and gather all of you about me in the living room and tell you never never again will I leave you...
[Editor's note: Read more of the Berman family's wartime correspondence in Dear Poppa: The World War II Berman Family Letters, Compiled by Ruth Berman and Edited by Judy Barrett Litoff.]
Berman, Reuben and Family, Reuben Berman and Family Papers, 1943-1945. Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts Collection.
Berman, Ruth, Compiler; Judy Barrett Litoff, Editor, Dear Poppa: The World War II Berman Family Letters St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.