Sisters discover postcards documenting parents’ courtship – in Yiddish

Front and back of a postcard with a message written in Yiddish from Isadore Kessler to his future fiancée, Esther Becker.

We are all making the most of sheltering in place in different ways. Some people are pulling puzzles and board games out of the closet. Others are kneading bread. Gardening is a popular pastime, as are long walks – at a safe distance, of course.

Here’s another idea: Look through those boxes of family photos and correspondence you’ve got stored in the basement. You might just uncover a hidden treasure. 

That’s what happened recently when Gert Hulbert and Ruth Sandler found a collection of vintage postcards. The postcards were written by their father, Isadore Kessler, while he was in the Army and found his days as long as many of us do now as we wait out the pandemic. He filled the lonely hours by writing the postcards and sending them to his future fiancée, Esther Becker, back in St. Louis.

The sisters were curious about what Isadore wrote to Esther but were stymied because the message side of the postcards were all composed in Yiddish. Isadore Kessler’s grandson Don Hulbert hired Hannah Berliner Fischthal, a language professor at St. John’s University in New York, to translate the text. That opened up a veritable time capsule.

“It was during World War I, and my father was stationed in Waco, Texas,” said Sandler, 88. “He got pneumonia, so they sent him to the base hospital, then to Oteen Military Hospital in Asheville, N.C. He wasn’t injured, but he had time on his hands, so he sent about 20 postcards to my mother while he was recuperating.”

When they finally read the contents of the postcards in English, the family quickly figured out that Isadore Kessler was deeply in love with Esther and wanted to make sure she knew he was OK.

“It turned out my father never did see active duty in the military,” Sandler said. “In fact, one of the postcards he wrote was postmarked Nov. 11, 1918 … a few hours before the armistice.”

That card from Isadore indicated that he and the troops knew what was coming and were ready to celebrate. He wrote: “I have good news that the war is as good as over! So everything is alright and I am having a happy good time!”

One eerie coincidenceis that many of the patients in the hospital with Kessler were quarantined. One of his postcards, written Jan. 17, 1919, described the deadly Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919. That horrific event caused at least 50 million deaths worldwide and nearly 675,000 in the United States.

The image on that card even suggested social distancing. It shows a young man stuck in a lake holding on to an oar as a young woman floats by in a rowboat. The caption reads: “I should so much like to be with you.” Isadore’s message to Esther on the reverse side also speaks to the pandemic. He writes: 

“Be informed that I am perfect. You have to excuse me for not having answered your letter so quickly because we were in a confused situation here. The flu is here again. Big. They already examined us further. Quarantined. For a few days, I did not feel well, so I thought I already had the flu, but I am alright now and feel quite well.”

A couple of the postcards Isadore sent to Esther actually did feature local landmarks. One depicted the summit of Mount Mitchell in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Several had military themes, including one with an image of a soldier and his sweetheart with the caption: “LEST YOU FORGET.”

Another postcard, mailed Oct. 9, 1918, had a similar military image with the inscription:

Though skies awhile be overcast,

There’s blue beyond the clouds above:

Soon shall the storm of war be past,

And all our thoughts be only love.

The Yiddish message Isadore wrote on the reverse side also alluded to wartime. He wrote to Esther: “I actually keep smiling now because, like it says on the postcard, there will soon be peace.”

In an odd juxtaposition, some of the postcards Isadore sent to Esther, although written in Yiddish, had distinctly Christian themes in their photos. One celebrated Christmas and another Easter. One notable “Passover Greetings” postcard that he mailed in 1919 was rich with symbolism. The image is of a mass of immigrants, some with beards and yarmulkes. They are all crossing a sea with the Statue of Liberty holding up her torch. It also includes a passage from the Passover Haggadah in Hebrew and English.

Like many Jewish immigrants, Isadore and Esther were born in Russia, but they met in St. Louis. Isadore came to the United States through Galveston, Texas, and Esther came in through Philadelphia. Eventually, after they married, Isadore became a tailor in a clothing store earning $100 a week. Later in his career, he owned his own dress manufacturing company called Saxony Frocks on Washington Avenue in St. Louis’ garment district. 

Hannah Fischthal, who translated the postcards for the Sandler family, concluded that Isadore wrote to Esther in “American Yiddish,” a hybrid of the two languages in which some English words were translated to Yiddish. It was also the style used in most Yiddish newspapers of the time. 

Correspondence in Yiddish among Jewish family members in 1920 America was common, said Will Soll, a St. Louis Yiddish musician and scholar.

“Yiddish was, after all, mamaloshen, a language of the home,” Soll said. “I imagine it would have felt natural for this couple to communicate in Yiddish. They may also have felt that using Yiddish made the postcard more private, since fewer strangers could read it.”

Historically, even the creation of postcards had a Jewish connection. In 1869, the Austrian post office produced the first official government Correspondenz-Karte based on an idea developed by Emanuel Hermann, a Viennese Jewish economics professor.

During the time Isadore Kessler was in the Army, postcards with images were also very popular in America. That was due in part to advances in photography and printing. If you were traveling, postcards were a great way to share your destination with friends and family. It was the early 20th century version of Instagram and Facebook posts.

For Gert Hulbert and Ruth Sandler, the postcards represent a treasure chest of precious memories of their parents during their courtship. The project was also a unique opportunity for Hannah Fischthal, the translator.

“I had no idea how fascinating and important these cards were,” Fischthal said. “Never before had I seen such a beautiful collection of World War I picture postcards featuring soldiers. Some were comical, some plain corny, some romantic.”