David, Ruth and Sylvia Weinstein, date unknown

Love, Struggle & Survival

21st September 2012

Jennifer Lipman talks to Ruth Mendick and Jeremy Weinstein, who have generously shared a fascinating family history

“I love you a lot, and believe me I am not fighting just because I believe in King or country, but because I want to give you and Baby a place in the sun.”

So reads a letter sent by a British soldier to his wife at home in August 1942, as the Second World War raged on seemingly with no end in sight. For this ordinary couple, like so many ordinary couples, the war years were not only about battles and casualties, or armies marching across lands near and far, but about prolonged separation, and children growing up not knowing fathers stationed whole continents away.

A new book bringing together several years of long distance love letters reveals the personal costs of war in vivid colour. The correspondence between Sylvia and David Weinstein, married just two years before war broke out, has been given a new lease of life by their children, Ruth Mendick and Jeremy Weinstein. The Weinstein’s War compiles some of the 700 letters sent between their parents while he was fighting in North Africa and Europe.

Going through her things after their mother’s death four years ago, the two siblings initially wanted to create an archive to show their children and grandchildren. But they found themselves holding on to a treasure trove of detail about the war and the individuals who fought in it, and so they approached a publisher.

The letters cover everything from how Sylvia managed when she was bombed out of her home, to David’s observations about the regulations of army life and the horrors of the frontline. She carefully numbered every letter, while he carried them through the desert and with him for four years.

Both East End Jews from immigrant families, they already had a daughter – Ruth – by the time David sailed up the Suez Canal to serve in Egypt. Writing to his wife from ‘the land of the Pharo’s[sic]’, he tells his young bride that there is ‘nothing romantic about this part of the East with its hovels and brothels, camels and cars, veiled and modern women.’ In other letters he offers news of the fighting, telling Sylvia in late 1942 that ‘the battle for North Africa is on and going great guns for us… we are pushing ahead as fast as the Italians and Germans can run.’

In contrast, Sylvia’s letters reveal the daily grind of life as a single mother in wartime Britain and of managing a household on rations. ‘I did buy a new dress shortly before Xmas,’ she tells him in May 1943, ever stoic. ‘Fay & I both bought coats early this year, so with the usual minor additions as times go by, I shall manage fine.’ In another letter she shares with David the scandal that her nephew, posted in Canada, has married without consulting his mother.

Her letters tell of playing board games in the bomb shelters and of an air raid where the main concern was whether the Hippodrome would be blitzed. ‘As I mentioned in one of my previous letters, we have seats for the pantomime for Saturday.’

As the correspondence goes on, the toll of the separation on the young couple is made clear. ‘Oh Davie, [Ruth] looks so much older – she isn’t really a baby any longer,’ sighs Sylvia in June 1942, having not heard from her husband for a long period. ‘The years are slipping away and we are simply wasting them apart.’

The difficulty of keeping a passionate relationship alive at such distance is made clear by a letter in which Sylvia writes of the challenge of ‘being intimate with a piece of paper’. David, less retiring, writes of looking at a photograph of his faraway wife and regretfully ponders ‘the beauty, charm and the delights of sex that is so far away.’

Their letters, which are intimate and warm, reveal an intelligent, politically passionate pair. David gives an account of his experience at the famous battle of El Alamein; Sylvia writes of the racism encountered by black American soldiers. ‘Betty tells me that the coloured American soldier is also not allowed at the Red+ Club to which she goes,’ she notes. ‘It rather makes me wonder what exactly you are fighting for, & also what they are fighting for – there is talk of freedom & rights. I always feel so sorry when I see these fellows – they are called Americans, yet are they?’

Later, David, stationed in post-war Germany, reports of forming friendships with families who had survived the Nazi atrocities and his anger at hearing of the resurgence of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. ‘While Natzis[sic] in Germany and elsewhere are being rooted out it doesn’t seem logical that in England they are allowed the precious liberty that I and others fought and millions died for,’ he writes in December 1945. A fervent Labour voter, he also writes of his own political ambitions; something that proved prescient, as he later became mayor of Waltham Forest.

“We knew bits about it but we never spoke about the war,” says his son, who is a psychotherapist. “It was there in the background but it was never talked about.” He admits that occasionally he questioned whether he should be reading the personal thoughts of his parents. “At times it felt a bit intrusive” he says, adding that it was strange to read of his impending birth.

He adds that “it was very precious”, though, to have such an insight into his parents. “My sons didn’t know my dad, as he died when they were young. My grandchildren knew my mum but only in her later years. I would like to them to know her and him as they were and to absorb their story.”

“It was just a voyage of discovery,” says Mrs Mendick, a former teacher, who lives in Highgate. “My father gave very vivid descriptions of the battles. I remember reading one and having tears running down my face to think that my poor dad had been going through this dreadful situation. I found it very emotional.”

She concludes that she hopes they have accomplished something of which their parents would have been proud. “Dad actually wrote in the letters that this would have made a good book, so I think he would have been very happy…”

The Weinsteins' War: Letters of Love, Struggle and Survival (The History Press, £13.49)

Find Your Local