Book Review: Love and Kisses, Charlie
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
Only 19 and in the Army to defeat Hitler, Charlie wrote letters that reveal a glimpse of truth behind his curtain of optimism.
Charlie Fletcher’s letters—scrupulous but reliably cheerful—make his World War II U.S. Army service feel present-tense.
This New Yorker was only 19, though he’d already finished a bachelor’s degree at NYU, when his country sent him off to prepare for war. His military service was at several U.S. locations beginning in late 1943 before he went off to Europe, where he stayed in service for months after the end of the war. Upon his return home, he moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he married and raised children. He died in 2005.
Love and Kisses, Charlie: WWII Letters from a Jewish-American Serviceman is a thorough compilation of Charlie’s letters home to his parents. It’s a testament to the strength of family bonds that the letters were written, saved, stored for three-quarters of a century, compiled, and published.
Charlie writes home with chatty details, like whether the food is fresh or canned, hot or cold, and when it’s fried chicken, peaches, asparagus soup, and chocolate cake. Basic training is hard, but afterward his job involves a lot of standing around an office, spending only a few minutes at a typewriter. He goes to the movies (starring William Powell and Hedy Lamarr, for instance), reads for pleasure at the library, and has a number of casual dates with unnamed young women.
He sends home $15 paycheck deductions as well as $25 money orders and asks his parents to save it for him. In return, he asks them for modest care packages, often requesting his old sneakers or a tube of toothpaste. He writes to them even when he has nothing in particular to say. He dates his letters, but often doesn’t give his exact locations, as the military forbids it.
Charlie might have intense feelings about his buddies (“the boys”) or his dates (“the girls”), and he might have political concerns about how the war will turn out, but on those topics he doesn’t yield up more than an offhand comment now and then. He sticks to giving his parents a lively inventory of his day-to-day activities, assuring them he’s alive and well. Jack Benny entertains the troops with a show, and Ingrid Bergman comes in person and autographs his money! In his letters, Charlie repeats their family inside jokes: “How happy I am that I have Daddy’s shaped head” and “Say Mom, I thought you were a changed woman.”
The letters were compiled by Joshua Gerstein, one of Charlie’s 11 grandchildren. In 2017, Gerstein—who serves as a rabbi in the Israeli military—came across the letters in his parents’ attic. There were over 600 communications. He scanned and transcribed them, arranged them with photographs, and prefaced each of a dozen chapters with historical context. This careful editorial work helps the reader link Charlie’s personal experiences and perspectives with what was happening geopolitically at the time.
On May 1, 1945, Charlie writes that he just heard a German radio broadcast with a “very sketchy report” of Hitler’s death. “Well, that’s one gangster out of our way, but for my money he got out much too easy,” he says lightly to his parents. A couple days later, he follows up, telling his father that his last letter “sounded pretty low in spirits” and advising him to look on the bright side; “close to 35 percent of the boys I did Basic with are dead and a good 60 percent have been wounded,” but he should know that his son, Charlie, is alive and well.
A couple weeks after that, Charlie meets Polish Jews recently liberated from years in concentration camps. “They all speak Yiddish and I understood them, just like hearing my Old Man speak it,” he remarks. He travels through Germany and finds it beautiful. (“All wrecked, but good,” he says, of his journey through Magdeburg.) He enjoys a three-day pass to Paris. Otherwise, his post-war duty involves tasks like processing displaced Russians to send them home (against their wishes).
Come September, he wants to attend the Jewish New Year religious services in Munich, “but I couldn’t catch a ride.” He starts the winter with horseback riding and skiing, and he goes to the opera: La Tosca in Paris, Aida in Brussels. He receives his long-awaited honorable discharge in March 1946.
Reading this, one might have a dual sense of reality and unreality. Charlie indexes his daily activities, and we know his favorite movies and foods. To that extent, it feels realistic. But the horrors of war don’t always peek around the edges. We’re sure he must have seen something that he didn’t want to talk about, something that didn’t make it into his letters home to Mom and Dad. He excludes mention of the pain that we know was all around him. So, his war story also reads a bit like a fantasy—an innocence of youth as well as a maturity of choosing what to keep private.
The length of this book might be a hurdle for the casual reader, but historians will appreciate having the complete set of letters. Charlie’s identity, American and Jewish, shines through strongly. We have the facts, and we know him well. I, for one, am glad to have met him here.
There is something special to be learned from reading all the letters in chronological order; it illustrates how long this young man’s absence felt to him. Such a long series of letters home is part of what it meant to go off to war. This WWII biography-in-letters is a quiet and thoughtful glimpse into the diversion of mind that one soldier used to reassure his family and to survive.
Genre: Nonfiction / History / WWII
Print Length: 634 pages
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