September 23, 1942: “…it is absolutely necessary for me to learn [German]…”
See/read a letter written September 23, 1942 from a Belgian worker in Saarbrücken, Germany.
Saarbrücken, WWII letter, handwritten letter with chemical censor marks, chemical censor, forced labor, Service du Travail Obligatoire, Marcel Heuzé, "Marcel's Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man's Fate", Carolyn Porter
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September 23, 1942: “…it is absolutely necessary for me to learn [German]…”

Handwritten WWII letter, written in French in black ink, covered with four chemical censor marks.


Miss Elza Delbovier
106 avenue Nouvelle
Brussels 4 [unclear]

Full-page Letter

My dear Els,

You will undoubtedly receive this letter before the one that I mailed on Monday the 21st [unclear]. I apologize thousands of times for such a delay in writing to you. I would really not want you to be upset about this.

As I tell you in this letter, where you will find the receipt from the bank (200 RM), I waited to write to you until I had the receipt, having first emptied my account (300 RM) with Ferrum. There’s not much new here, and as you know, I’m very busy. Nevertheless, I will be careful not to leave you a longtime without a letter and in the future I will write to you regularly every week. In the other letter I gave you the reasons why I am leaving Ferrum and you will certainly disagree.

Your airmail letter really touched me. I was afraid there was a problem! I thank you again from the bottom of my heart for the medallion from Dietz. It was a really nice surprise for me[1], and all my friends[2] who have seen the photo have said that it is a perfect resemblance! It’s truly my thought[3] also. It is perfect! There’s no other word for it. Therefore, I carry it always with me, in a little box with the [unclear—cotton/wrapping?]. As soon as[4] I have landed a client[5], I will tell you so, but as long as I remain at Ferrum, I am employed for my service hours, and so, very limited. To come back to Ferrum, obviously I asked for advice, from people older than me, before making this decision. Studying German, which I absolutely must know before March 1st, the date of the renewal of my visa, can’t be done in one year without intensive work every day [underlined twice], which I have never done until now. It is necessary to talk, talk, and keep talking and to that add the study of grammar and the study of words. I already know quite a few words, but if, on one hand, I don’t have enough practice of putting these words together, on the other hand I don’t talk enough. I don’t hear [underlined twice] enough German. I get only the general meaning, and sometimes not the meaning at all, from lack of practice. German conversation is fast and it’s only through intensive practice that you ear gets used to it.

If you have to think for a moment when you hear a sentence, you’re lost with the next part, and that’s often the case with me. With my friends, it’s OK, sometimes when I spend the evening at their place. But I can’t really ask them three or four hours of patience every day. With Lt. Uhlein (see my preceding letters, especially the one of September 21) it’s completely different. First of all he knows a lot of French, and the only parts missing are conversation and pronunciation. He’s in the same situation as me, exactly, although his vocabulary is more extensive than mine. As a result, it’s an exchange, and as it’s important that I join the firm (Maggi General Manager for me for Belgium) (see my letter of the 21st) he helps me as a friend and as a future co-worker. That’s why it is absolutely necessary for me to learn [German] for March. At that time I will possibly already be working at Maggi. I don’t know anything about it. The goal, the immediate and indispensable goal [is] the rapid knowledge of German. The rest has no importance. Tell yourself well and this so that you will not be upset for Ferrum, and so that everyone will not find my appointments scornful, or life expensive. If I get a spot, besides, I can easily earn 700 to 800 [Marks] regularly with German in my bags [double underline]. I will not be upset to get that, believe me. I lost five months in front of my typewriter, that’s all. What would I have done without my lessons? Still have I had to give up, for lack of time but while I was giving lessons, I must not forget that it was forbidden to study German.

I’m hurrying to close this letter. The post office will close and I want to send this today. Write to me the address of Mme Scherliniez [sp?], avenue des Nations and [the address] of Marcelle, Avenue Molière to thank her. A thousand apologies again for my silence. That will not happen anymore. Thank you again with all my heart for Dietz. That was very nice of you.

Kisses to [unclear]
[Unclear signature]


Partial Letter

spend the least possible, in that way I can save money and so I will eat [6] better and more. Write to me at this address: A. de Woel, c/o Frau Trumpelmann, 1 Saarbrucken, 2 Scherning Promenade. These are my friends and I go to their home often (her daughter is the young widow whom I talked about). I plan to visit Stromburg this week and Berlin next month. I will write to you about that. I apologize, my little Els, for not writing for so long, but I’m very busy and also I have been very lazy for two weeks because of my stomach which has made [des sienns? ‘its own’?]. I received two weeks of time off for illness and I took it easy[7] all along the Saar. I was especially very tired. I slept for 12 to 14 hours without waking up. That’s all to say to you. Now I am well rested… 

[Next page] and completely well. I haven’t sent you money sooner, and this time only, because I had to reimburse Ferrum 300 RM that I owed it. In this way, I am leaving free and clear[8]. I apologize again, my little doll. I am sending you 50 RM more to reimburse Mireille and to pay for my watch. If there is any left, it is for you, of course. I wish you good luck and also success in Paris–which I don’t doubt. I will write to you more often in the future, having time and ink now at home, which I didn’t have before. Buy some shiny buttons for my coat, a little rounded if possible, and some little ones for the back.[9] You don’t have to sew them, I will have it done. Buy also two pairs of black gloves, in leather or kid or suede, size 7½ for the daughter of Mme Trumpelmann. She is in mourning and doesn’t have gloves. You can put them in the…


Notes from the translator, Janet:

1. Ce fut pour moi = ‘It was for me (a really great surprise). It was strange to see this in an informal letter, because ‘fut’ is a verb form used only for literary or historical writing, a very formal past tense that is never used in conversation or personal correspondance.
2. tout mes amis  = Correctly, ‘tous mes amis’, same pronunciation
3. mon cross  = In the context, this is ‘my thought’—but ‘crois’ is a verb, not a noun, so it doesn’t fit.  Other words could be ma croyance (my belief), ma pensée (my thought).  But Els certainly understood what he meant.
4. Dé que  = Correct spelling: Dès que
5. Pêché un client  = Interesting colorful verb: fished (caught) a client
6. je mangerais  means ‘I would eat’; probably should be je mangerai  ‘I will eat’; very similar pronunciation
7. J’ai battu mon flemme = spelling is flème, same pronunciation
8. literally ‘with my hands free’
9. Besides the enjoyment of reading French — especially the thrill of reading original documents — translating these letters and postcards is sometimes an intriguing puzzle, requiring an understanding of the language (both vocabulary and structure) and handwriting. A good example is ‘Buy some shiny buttons for my coat, a little rounded if possible, and little ones for the back.’ A first reading looked like ‘Buy some shiny kisses for my hammer, a little rounded if possible, and little ones for the back,’ which obviously didn’t make sense! The letters in what looked like ‘kisses’ and ‘hammer’ were not clear.  The next line gave a clue: ‘You don’t need to sew them. I will have it done.’ The writing is not clear, but since there is only one letter different between mon marteau ‘my hammer’ and mon manteau ‘my coat,’ I knew what the writer meant to write. From there, it was clear that des bisous ‘some kisses’ was really des boutons ‘some buttons,’ regardless of the handwriting.

Notes from Carolyn:
1. I have included the category “Service du Travail Obligatoire” to this letter, though it’s possible the letter writer was not conscripted. I say that because it seems he has an unusual amount of autonomy in his own decisions, and the need to learn German implies he was not working manual labor. As with any of these letters, there are more unknowns than knowns. Regardless, the fact the letter has four chemical censor stripes infers the writer was in a location where he had access to information the Germans deemed sensitive. I added the STO category so it is easier to find if someone wanted to read all the various postcards and letters in this blog.
2. A quick search on “Ferrum” shows a company in Saarbrücken whose principal activities currently include “wholesale trade in scrap, rolled steel products, piping, non ferrous metals, iron, alloys and other industrial products including slag, paper sacks, graphite, fire resistant products.”