pile of letters with handwriting addresses sent from India to the U.S during WWII

The pile of letters Donna’s father sent to his sister in Chicago while he was stationed in India during WWII, including the silk he sent her to make herself a dress.

Welcome to installment two of my advice column

where I answer readers’ questions about writing compelling stories from family history:

Donna, who lives in Israel, asks: “I would like your advice! About 10 years ago when I visited family in Chicago, my aunt who had started to get Alzheimer’s, gave me a box of my father’s letters to her.

[…] In 1940 at the age of 19 my father became a soldier in the US army and was sent to India. I know that he had hard experiences and especially missed his family. He wrote to my aunt, his younger sister, and asked her to translate into Yiddish some of what he wrote. I read a few letters and some really hit me because he said things like: “It’s horrible what’s happening to our people in Europe,” or “the future of our people is in Palestine.”

I want to write a book using his letters,

as [he was] a first generation American serving in the army, first time away from home and in a foreign country. He was very affected by seeing the poverty as well as [the life of the] upper castes. He went to synagogues for the holidays and so many areas of the country.

I don’t know how to go about getting started with this.

Now that I have retired I planned on making this a project. Every time I open a letter I feel like he is talking to me, and I know that I am living his dream. He visited me 4 times and loved Israel. Sadly he died in 1986 of a sudden heart attack after we left the US.

After my aunt died 2 years ago, my cousin found the silk that my dad mailed to my aunt from India to make herself a nice dress, which she never did. I brought the silk to Israel and a seamstress suggested that I could have her make scarves for my daughter and 2 daughters-in-law, my cousin, my sister-in-law and for myself! The silk was in perfect condition, still wrapped in tissue paper! What a gift!”

My answer:

First of all, Donna, let me begin by reiterating how much I appreciate getting emails like yours! (Donna wrote to me in response to reading my memoir Jumping Over Shadows as we have many things in common, such as a connection to Chicago and another to Israel.) It is always so reaffirming of my work to hear how it resonates with readers.

To answer your question, now that you shared that you have not only your dad’s letters but also the silk he sent to his sister:

Start with that piece of silk.

There are several reasons for this:

  1. It gives you a concrete place to begin. Describe this piece of silk, including colors, pattern, size, texture.
  2. I gather that the pile of letters feels overwhelming to you, so begin with the one letter that perhaps accompanied that piece of silk. Quote from it. This gives you an opening to capture your dad’s relationship with his sister.
  3. Include some backstory. Research where exactly your dad was when he bought the silk. I see from your image that you have the original package of the Indian Textile Co. See what you can find out about that to provide a bit of local color.
  4. This piece of silk also gives you a connection to the present because you still have it! And you have interacted with it, taking it to Israel and consulting a seamstress. So add your story of that piece of silk. If you know why your aunt never had that dress made, include that as well. If you get those scarves made, they won’t mean much to the women in your family unless they know the history behind that silk.

As you write this, be sure to keep your focus tight on this piece of silk.

That will help you craft one piece of writing you can share with your family. When you give them the scarves, perhaps? You could even try to publish it. A Jewish solider serving in India during WWII is an unusual angle, so I’d wager to say Jewish publications might be interested.

Once you have a finished piece that honors one little part of your dad’s service in India, I think you will feel heartened to take up another one. You might actually get a bunch of ideas for other topics as you write this.

As you move on to other topics, always ask yourself: How does this connect to the present?

The most engaging stories of the past show its impact on the present.

From the little that you have shared with me, I see one obvious connection: your father’s observation that “the future of our people is in Palestine” and your actually making aliyah (emigrating to Israel). This is, however, a bigger topic. That is why I recommend you begin with a smaller topic that provides a laser-like focus: that piece of silk.

I hope this helps, Donna. Thank you for asking me for advice and for sharing your photo.

And don’t forget, dear readers:

You can find more advice on the many conundrums of writing family history in my guide How to Write Compelling Stories from Family History. One chapter, for example, is titled “Where to Begin?”

Feel free to submit follow-up questions to my advice column.