Decode This German Shorthand Mystery Letter From 1939!
March 14, 2013 12:56 PM   Subscribe

This envelope with a letter inside was found inside a large decaying bound edition of Shakespeare auf Deutsch in a junk shop in Bushwick that was only apparently open for a few months before disappearing. The letter, postmarked 15 March, 1939 - was sent to Paris by a Mr. Henri Wolf. The contents of the letter appear to be German shorthand. Included was small piece of what looks like code, there's nothing else on the back.The letter, envelope, postcard, etc in question are at this imgur album. Hivemind: What the hell is this?
posted by The Whelk to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
By the "small piece of code" do you mean the little chit of paper? That's Latin, and a quick search shows that it is Ovid.
posted by Jehan at 1:01 PM on March 14, 2013

Response by poster: I never said I was smart.
posted by The Whelk at 1:01 PM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

my german is not exactly awesome... but a german ww2 era sheet of coded text, and a small 4 letter chit code? ... Am I the only one thinking it's for an enigma machine or similar cypher?
posted by F0ley at 1:04 PM on March 14, 2013

From Ovid - a snippet of the tale of Philemon and Baucis.
posted by jquinby at 1:05 PM on March 14, 2013

So maybe it's somebody's translation homework?
posted by jquinby at 1:06 PM on March 14, 2013

"my german is not exactly awesome... but a german ww2 era sheet of coded text, and a small 4 letter chit code? ... Am I the only one thinking it's for an enigma machine or similar cypher?"

In March of 1939 neither Britain, the source of the English language post card with the seal of the United Kingdom, nor France were even at war with Germany, which was busy invading Czechoslovakia at the time. I mean, it could be coded somehow, but mail delivery between France and Britain would have been standard and unremarkable.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:16 PM on March 14, 2013

Here's a picture of the address, 21 Rue de Rochechouart. Since it is a postcard, it's likely the text was written in shorthand just for privacy reasons. Spies would be less obvious about it.
posted by beagle at 1:36 PM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Well, it may well be nothing at all, but it's at least curious that there's a German (or German-speaking French national?) in Greenock in early 1939. Greenock, on the Firth of Clyde, was one of the historic shipbuilding strongholds of the UK -- it's where ships like the QE2 were commissioned -- and ended up being bombed during the Battle of Britain. It would also have been an ideal location to observe ship traffic in and out of the Firth, mainly to and from Glasgow. Also, though the UK was not at war with Germany in March of 1939, events such as the Munich Agreement and the Anschluss had heightened tensions and the sovereignty of Poland was considered threatened, so the winds of war were certainly aloft.

Still, anything sensitive would have probably been meant for immediate destruction, and the inclusion with a bit of Ovid (with an allusion to filial hospitality) may mean it's of a personal nature.
posted by dhartung at 2:36 PM on March 14, 2013

Could it be Gabelsberger? Here is a four-page handout for decoding it, if so.
posted by i. shishkin at 2:47 PM on March 14, 2013

Wolf is a common Jewish name, and by 1939 there was an big established community of Jewish people on Clydeside (most famously Manny Shinwell). So I don't know if it is any great interest.
posted by Jehan at 2:56 PM on March 14, 2013

I cannot help you with the "what" of your letter but I might be able to help with the "who". (It doesn't answer your question but I find it interesting and thought you might as well.)

In 1930 there was a Henri Wulf living in Brooklyn with his wife Mary and their son, Herbert, born around 1917. Henri is a brick layer and his wife is a dress finisher. They look to have lived at 73 Wyckoff Avenue which is indeed in Bushwick (street view). The entire family are German immigrants. Here they are in the census for that year (on line 29).

It looks like they came to America from Jersbeck in July 1928 (though they didn't have Herbert with them). This might be their manifest. There is also a Herbert, born the proper time that came from the same area that December with a group -- he is listed as a pupil to a clerk named Albert Wulf. I believe Herbert enlisted in 1943.

It looks like this was Herbert's son, Marvin. He died in 2011 but if you're truly interested in anything about the letter, there are living descendents listed. I know most people don't get this excited about random letters but eh, I'm weird.

I know all that is a long shot but between the bookstore being in Bushwick and this family with the same name having lived there, I think there's a pretty good chance it's the same man that sent / received your letter.

Is the mail going to or from Paris?
posted by youandiandaflame at 3:03 PM on March 14, 2013 [12 favorites]

Super interesting tidbit about Herbert from the U.S. Subject Index to Correspondence and Case Files of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1903-1959:

"1944: War Dept. fwds infmn re: --- which indicates subject is pro-German. Also, petition is postponed on grounds that he evinced a mental reservation about fighting Germany. Subject is a private in the US Army."
posted by youandiandaflame at 3:12 PM on March 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

That first part looks like shorthand. The second part looks like Latin.
posted by limeonaire at 4:03 PM on March 14, 2013

Great sense of timing to post the question on the eve of its anniversary! I'm no help on the shorthand, but did you note the page it was stuck in? Shakespeare was mad for classical tales, Ovid hardly least - apparently Philemon and Baucis is referenced a couple of times.
posted by Theophylactic at 4:40 PM on March 14, 2013

Seems very possible that the note has nothing to do with the postcard. They could not have been sent together originally. Perhaps someone just shoved them into an envelope together for keeping.
posted by ecorrocio at 5:08 PM on March 14, 2013

The letter is German shorthand - I learned that at school. I could probably figure it out - however, it depends on how fluent the person writing was at shorthand.

(it's not just a different way to write letters, there are also rules on how to shorten words, and even special combinations for often-used phrases - one example I remember is that the short-symbol for "I", and a dot beneath it, stands for "I am of the opinion" - because in German, that phrase is equivalent to "I stand on the point of view"...).

I know my grandmother could read that, as she was a secretary and continued to use shorthand (and writing in Old German cursive) until her death.

... *stares*

The first word is "Mein" ("my"), followed by the name of the person she's writing to - I'd have to look up shorthand rules to figure it out, but I think it starts with "Al"... actually, it might be "Allerliebster", which would be "most beloved". Then it's "Tausend Dank für dein süßes Schreiben, ich bin leider auch in aller Eile (? I think) [something] und hoffe, dass ich dir am Abend ausführlicher schreiben kann." (that's the first 2 lines, minus the last symbol at the end of line 2).

which translates to "a thousand thanks for your sweet letter, I am unfortunately [in a hurry? - I think is the general gist there], and hope that I can write to you in more detail in the evening".

I can try to translate more later, but I'm at work.
posted by ari_ at 11:16 PM on March 14, 2013 [11 favorites]

Is the mail going to or from Paris?

I got Greenock from the postmark, and the address is clearly Paris. I'm not sure how a bricklayer in Brooklyn gets back to the UK to mail a letter to Paris, though. Usually steerage class was a one-way trip. It seems a long shot (though of course they could have been related, or any number of other Jews -- or even non-Jewish Germans! -- could have ended up in Bushwick after the war.

For what it's worth in the other direction, I couldn't find any relevant records of birth, marriage or death involving a Henri Wolf here or here (which seem the best places to look). So perhaps he was just passing through in a general sense. It would be interesting if there were any sort of property or address/telephone records that could cross-reference his existence.
posted by dhartung at 3:02 AM on March 15, 2013

The addressee, Mr. Henri Wolf (not Wulf) appears to be associated with "Londres-Paris Tailors" which is mentioned in this family history, with a 1939 time frame. (Wow, Tripod is still around?) The story concerns Heinz and Ilse Wolf.

Now, if you go to the beginning of that piece, you'll find mention of Henry Wolf, a tailor in Vienna, and other members of the family. Later in the narrative, they relocate to Paris and eventually make it to America. And what you find out is that by the time he arrives in America (and presumably while he was in Paris), Heinz has changed his name to Henry. Henry joins the US Army and serves in Belgium and Germany as a second lieutenant in intelligence. (Aha! A spy after all!)

Index page to the whole thing.
Acknowledgment page with "Special Thanks to Ilse and Henry Wolf"
Family group picture showing Henry and Ilse (I think) over at the left end of the table.

Story was written by Nyssa Patten, with help from other Pattens. I believe this page will point you to the Nyssa Patten in question.
posted by beagle at 6:23 AM on March 15, 2013 [11 favorites]

beagle is a better researcher than me. Holy crap, that is awesome!
posted by youandiandaflame at 6:27 AM on March 15, 2013

The Whelk, check your MeFi Mail for a bit more info.
posted by beagle at 6:39 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Holy. Balls.

Okay I may be writing a letter to someone saying "I think I have some of your family's correspondence" soon.
posted by The Whelk at 6:57 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yet another reason for loving metafilter!
posted by mareli at 10:51 AM on March 15, 2013

What's more, there is a long section of the story beagle found, dealing with both Henry and Ilse learning English by memorizing passages from Shakespeare, and mentioning the "well worn" volume of Shakespeare Henry owned.

Now that must have been a different book than the one you have (his was in the original English, apparently, since they were learning English by memorizing passages from it, whereas yours is in German, based on your description) but it is still a pretty darn close connection.
posted by flug at 10:54 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ok, sadly, I cannot make everything out - I have forgotten too much, and also, in some places, the writing is too faded to be clear. At some places I'm sure she's writing a specific shorthand combination for a common word, but I have no way to look it up (I could not find a dictionary online, only a basic primer). I ended up poking a friend for input, her memories of shorthand are hazy as well, but she agrees with what I puzzled out.

So, here is the text that I can read, line by line, so you can compare each word in shorthand and then in German (note that for some words I was not sure of the reading but went with what fit both the context and the bits I could make out).

15.III., in aller Eile am Postamt

Mein Allerliebster!

Tausend Dank für dein süßes Schreiben, ich bin leider auch in aller Eile

heute und hoffe, dass ich dir am Abend ausführlich Schreiben kann. Seit

meinem letzten Brief habe ich mich schon beruhigt und bitte [strikeout] ["bitte" again?] entschuldige

vielmals mein etwas verworrenes Gescheibsel. ?? vielleicht hast du bemerkt wie

mir zumute war, allerdings hätte ich mir vorher oder nachher überlegen sollen

dir das zusenden! ich versuche [strikeout] mir (??) Kraft das Leben hier

?? verträglich zu gestalten und ist mir das auch seit gestern schon ein

?? gelungen und selbst ich kann beim besten Willen nichts mehr finden, ich tu

schon mehr als alles. Allein bitte, Liebling, ?? das nicht weiter mit

meinen ??, du bist genug mit deinen eigenen belastet und es

ist ?? größte? [not shorthand] ?? ??. Ich freue mich unendlich über

deine ???, mein Liebes, ?? du! Das sieht dir wieder ähnlich.

?? ?? ich ?? ??, ?? mein Liebling ?? ?? ??

?? ?? ?? und ?? liebend


Und Deinen l. [=lieben] Eltern viele, herzliche Grüße und Küsse!!!

Here's the translation - the text is a bit rough in the original and in one or two places I am not sure if it's not quite a correct sentence because she was in a hurry, or because I fail at remembering all my shorthand. I think the overall content comes across correctly, tho.

March 15, in all haste at the post office

My Most Beloved!

Thousand thanks for your sweet letter. I am unfortunately also in a hurry today and hope that I will be able to write you in detail in the evening. Since my last letter I have calmed down and please excuse my somewhat confused writings/scribblings [seems to refer to previous correspondence?]. ? maybe you noticed how I was feeling, however I should have considered beforehand or afterwards whether to send it to you. I try ["strength" should fit in here somehow] to make life here agreeable, and it has started working since yesterday and even I, no matter how I try, can't do more than I am doing. However, darling, do not [can't make the verb out, guessing "worry"] any more about my [woes?], you are burdened enough with your own and it [not sure here, also, one word seems to be in longhand]. I am endlessly looking forward to/am endlessly happy about your [something], my love, [??]. This is just like you.
[can't make it out for sure except for "my darling", and last word is "loving"]


And also to your lovely parents many affectionate greetings and kisses!!!
posted by ari_ at 11:21 AM on March 15, 2013 [13 favorites]

The postmark is 15 March 1939 and the note on the postcard is also dated March 15th ("15. III."). This and the location (Greenock) match up exactly with the story told here, where she left Austria to arrive in England, left her first situation in Englad to find a somewhat better opportunity living with a family in Scotland as a nanny, and then left Scotland for France at the first opportunity, to re-unite with her future husband.

She arrived in Paris on April 1st, seizing on the opportunity of Easter vacation to basically 'escape' from Scotland, so this postcard would have been the period when she was corresponding with her relatives and and Henri in France, trying to arrange to move there. She was very unhappy with her first position in England, and wasn't very happy with the situation in Scotland, either--which undoubtedly explains the "worry" and "woes" in ari_'s translation of the postcard.

Also FYI "Ilsi" would be a typical diminutive/affectionate type of nickname for Ilse--the sort of nickname common in Austria.
posted by flug at 11:39 AM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is the best ASK ever! I can't believe how romantic their story is, and the fact that you found the letter tucked into a book of Shakespeare is just too much. The Whelk, I bet their family will be thrilled to get this back from you if you decide to contact them.

This is just so neat. =)
posted by Brody's chum at 7:00 PM on March 15, 2013

It makes so much more sense that it's her writing to him, obviously. My, what a fantastic coincidence.
posted by dhartung at 4:43 PM on March 16, 2013

Also FYI "Ilsi" would be a typical diminutive/affectionate type of nickname for Ilse--the sort of nickname common in Austria.

Huh. I love the name Ilse. It's my grandmother's name. She died way before I was born. My dad always said she was incredibly sweet and I would have loved her.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:07 AM on March 17, 2013

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