Writer connects history and genealogy
"Thanks to Google, it really isn't too hard to track a lot of people down, quite frankly," Smith told the Reformer. "I didn't wave too many magic wands to find these people really. You can't really hide anymore. So I couldn't have done this — at least not this easily — without internet access. Like 25 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to do this. So maybe it's good I did this now."
Smith will be hosting a slideshow presentation at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3, at Dover Free Library. She has spoken at the library before about Henry David Thoreau.
While preparing to move back to central Massachusetts from Pennsylvania last summer, Smith came across a box she had previously thought only contained a stamp collection owned by her father.
"When I opened it up, I saw envelopes that said 'War Department,'" said Smith.
She found letters from 16 servicemen, the correspondences occurring between 1945 and 1946.
Smith's mother, Jeanette Banzhoff Hosfeld, had been training as a nurse at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia at the time. About seven of the letters' authors were men who had lived in her hometown of Allentown, Pa.
Before she died in 1993, Hosfeld told Smith she would write to soldiers during the war.
"We all wrote to soldiers during the war," Smith recalled her mother saying, "people who we knew, people who we hear about."
Smith said she did not remember her mother saying she still had any letters written in reply.
What she found in the letters was "nothing flirty" or anything too revealing.
One was missing words, which she attributed to censors.
The project was another exercise in genealogy for Smith, who had earlier done some research on her own family.
"I've tracked down five of the soldiers' families out of 16 and it's been really interesting meeting people," she said, having connected with families in Connecticut, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Smith said the letters were written at a time "when people all pulled together and everyone was in the same boat." She said she might write something about the experience in the future.
Attendees at previous presentations had similarly found letters penned by family members.
"Some people don't think it's right to read them," Smith said. "So it's interesting to hear what other people have done in this situation, where they've got letters or mementos and they've got ancestors who have been in the wars and brought things home."
As a former librarian, part of the fun of the project is what she called "the thrill of the hunt" — making links with the clues left behind. She looks forward to returning to the Dover library.
"It's a great place, great audience," she said. "The library does tons of stuff up there and it's all good."
Smith said she still writes letters to several people who are older and do not have internet access or email.
"But not a lot of people do, which is why all these letters, and talking about and hearing that other people have some saved from long ago is sort of a neat thing," she said. "And you get to see the person's handwriting and you know that they held the paper."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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