by Andrew McDermott
According to Carol, Leo proposed on the first date. Leo placed his marriage proposal a little later in their brief courtship - on the third date. 'Regardless, it was still abrupt,' said Carol, my grandmother.
While my grandparents' courtship would be considered short by contemporary standards, it was not unusual in post World War II Europe. After the war many couples met, dated briefly, and married quickly. The race to marriage seemed an instinctive attempt to normalize the present, to escape the horror of the war and begin anew.
The aftermath of the war left many Europeans adrift, the loss of family and friends socially stranded many survivors. American soldiers, while not deprived of a homeland, suffered similar affects from the trauma of warfare. This trauma appears to be the reason behind the whirlwind courtships often conducted between couples across cultural, not mention, language barriers.
Although the trend amongst American soldiers was to marry foreign women, there were cases of male 'war brides' such as Leo. One such case was even made into a movie. 'I Was a Male War Bride', directed by Howard Hawks in 1947, told of a French colonel who married a WAC. The couple then immigrated to the U.S. under the War Bride Act.
So how did a Jew from Poland meet and marry a Unitarian from Cleveland?
Leo was born in Olyka, Ukraine. As a child, Leo was nicknamed the 'Lost One' or the 'Foundling' because just five weeks after his birth he was lost by his parents as they attempted to flee Austrian shelling during World War I. Lejba, his name before he adopted the name Leo, left Poland for Palestine at the age of 19 to avoid conscription in the Polish army. Leo joined the British Army shortly after Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. A member of the Desert Rats, he fought in North Africa and Italy. After being demobilized he applied to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, and was assigned to the Milan headquarters.
Carol was born in Cleveland, Ohio and raised in Cleveland and Jamestown, New York. She graduated from Hiram College in Ohio with a degree in sociology. On the day that President Roosevelt died, she applied to UNRRA and was accepted. She hoped to work in the displaced persons camps in Germany, but was assigned to an administrative job in Paris instead. On a vacation to Italy, she met Leo at the Milan headquarters of UNRRA.
For Leo, returning to Poland was never an option. Eyewitness accounts confirmed that the Jewish population of Olyka was killed by the Einsatzgruppen, mobile death squads that systematically exterminated Jews on the western front or shipped them off to concentration camps. This included all of Leo's family, except for his sister, Shoshana, who was residing in Palestine at the beginning of the war.
During their courtship, Leo often took extreme measures to ensure that Carol would stay nearby. Before returning to France, Carol wished to travel through Switzerland, which required a separate passport. Leo took her passport, saying that as a member of the Italian division of UNRRA he could acquire the clearance for Carol to travel to Switzerland. Carol stayed at a resort near Milan, while Leo held the passport for several days passing off the delay as a bureaucratic necessity, when he could have provided clearance for Carol at any time.
After a visiting her grandmother a few times in France, Carol agreed to marry Leo. She turned down a promotion to the position of case worker in Germany, and moved to Milan to be married.
The bureaucracy of the post war governments often frustrated marriage attempts. 'We had to go through a lot of red tape,' said Carol. 'They said that we had to have birth certificates, and Leo was supposed to have a certificate saying that he hadn't been married before.'
Once the proper papers were solicited from the American and Polish embassies, they then had to be translated into Italian. The official told Leo and Carol that the translation would not be done for at least 2 days. Frustrated with the delay in their marital plans, my grandparents bribed the official. 'Leo gave the guy a pack of cigarettes,' said Carol. 'He said it would be done by that afternoon. That's how things worked after the war.'
Even after acquiring proof of birth, the red tape trail continued. Before a marriage certificate could be acquired, a couple had to apply for the marriage license at yet another municipal building, with witnesses that would vouch for their identities. 'We had to get to the office at 6 in the morning because everyone was getting papers notarized,' said Carol. 'The whole situation was rather bizarre. If you didn't have friends to stand witness for you, there were people waiting around outside the building you could pay to be a witness, even though they didn't know you from Adam.'
Carol and Leo were married by the Mayor of Milan. They lived in Milan until 1948, when Carol left for America and was joined by Leo two months later. 'An election was coming up in Italy, and it looked quite possible that it could turn out for the Communists,' said Carol. 'So he sent me home to America.'
Rather than joining her immediately, Leo left for Czechoslovakia with a padded money belt hidden under his clothes. In Czechoslovakia, Leo purchased arms to be shipped to the newly formed state of Israel. 'Of course I was a little upset when I found out what he was up to,' said Carol. This was not the first time that Leo had aided the effort to form a Jewish homeland.
On at least one occasion, Leo helped smuggle Jews onto boats bound for Palestine. Leo feigned illness and stayed home from the opera, while Carol attended the performance with the same British officials who restricted immigration to Palestine.
After his trip to Czechoslovakia, Leo traveled to the United States to start a new life with Carol. He arrived in Jamestown, New York, in July of 1948. He just barely made it over the ocean in time for the birth of his child, Judith, my mother.