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Hemingway and Gellhorn and Uncle Ira – Ira Magazine

August 22, 2017

Ira Magazine, 1943. We (my sisters and I) were told that in the late 1930s in order to “Americanize” the family name, Magaziner, that the family had a long discussion that lasted several years, after which, it was resolved to make a great change, to drop the “r” in Magaziner and to exchange that for “Magazine.” This they did.

Hemingway and Gellhorn.

It’s a film about the turbulent, yet professionally productive marriage between Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, who unceremoniously dumped him after a brief relationship. A close friend and skilled local poet, Phil Woods, loaned it to me. As is well-known, Hemingway became an American literary icon. Other than in journalistic and peace circles, Gellhorn’s contribution has dissolved to obscurity despite the fact that she was one of the finest war correspondents of the twentieth century. The film, panned by many critics, but which I thoroughly enjoyed, knocks Hemingway down more than a few deserved notches – perhaps not so much his writing as the reckless way he lived his life – and resurrects Gellhorn, deservedly so.

After seeing the film, it was high time to read Gellhorn. Plenty of her stuff is available. I chose a little volume: Martha Gellhorn The Face of War – a series of short 5-20 page sketches that start with the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) to the 1980s Central American wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. A keen observer, fearless – or so it seemed – she gives as human a face to war as anyone I have ever read. Her writing is crisp, clear and to a great degree without illusions. A pleasure to read, even if the subject matter is completely depressing, and it is.

Each little chapter resonated. She captures the collective determination of the Finns standing up to a Soviet army ten to fifteen times its size and, essentially fighting them to a draw in what is referred to as “The Winter War” – one of the preludes to World War Two. Her description of meeting German civilians as the allied armies lunged towards the Rhine River in early 1945 was striking. None of them, they told her, were really Nazis; and they had “nothing particular against the Jews.” Were they lying to save themselves, living in an ignorance bubble?

But the little piece that struck home the most was a twelve page episode entitled “The First Hospital Ship – June 1944.” It detailed the activities of a hospital ship off the Normandy coast in the days and weeks after the D-Day invasion, how nurses and hospital workers risked their lives ferrying the wounded and near dead from the beaches to the hospital ships anchored in nearby waters, the risks taken in the ferrying operations. It also described a scene of overworked doctors, nurses and medical personnel trying to keep up with the flow of wounded, and of the wounded themselves. There they are in the midst of great human suffering trying to manage the damage, remove shrapnel and bullets, sew bodies back together, comfort the wounded and the dying. Reading that passage, somehow it came back to me later that night, that among the orderlies on a hospital ship in those days was one Ira Magazine, my uncle, one of my mother’s brothers. He was there, in the middle of it.

Ira Magazine

I remember when first I stumbled across this picture of my Uncle Ira. There he is, tall, dark, handsome, with a full head of hair. He’s leaning on a car with two-tone tires to match his two-tone shoes. A spiffy hat is in his hands. Thin. When I knew him years later he wasn’t thin nor did he sport a head of hair. He’s not smiling in this picture, probably just squinting because of the sun in his eyes. It was a striking photo. The date on the back said “1943.” In his youth, Ira Magazine was a handsome man. Where is he? I don’t know. Perhaps in the Catskills (which is what I would guess) or somewhere near the beach? Coney Island? Whatever. 1943? He would have already have been drafted into the army by then. Was he on leave? Dunno – like so many other questions that will never be answered. The photo must have been in my mother’s big red photo scrapbook, as close to a documentary history of my mother’s side of the family, the Magazines, starting with their journey from Grodno, Belarus and Bialystok, Poland to Nostrand Ave and Avenue K in Brooklyn and beyond.

Ira Magazine died young, very young, in his forties, leaving a wife, my Aunt Rose, and three children, my cousins Sarrea, Michele and Jay to fend for themselves. What followed were, at best, difficult years for them. Not long before he died, Uncle Ira would come visit my mother, already divorced from my father, Herb Prince. Mom and Uncle Ira would sit for hours in a car just outside our home, (84-20 Chapin Parkway in Jamaica New York) talking. Beatrice and Ira Magazine were two of the last of the fourteen children to whom Sarah Magazine had given birth – seven of which survived into adulthood. As I recall, Ira had a twin sister who either died at birth or shortly thereafter. Close in age, Uncle Ira and my mother were emotionally close as well.

What they were talking about, sitting in his car on the corner of Chapin Parkway and Chapin Court? I never found out. No way my mom would betray her brother confidences (or anyone else). I don’t know. I asked my mom but beyond saying that “your uncle isn’t happy,” I never knew. Shortly afterwards Ira Magazine died. After he died my mother and aunt (our Aunt Mal) didn’t talked much about Uncle Ira, but what they did share, I remember well. They spoke of a funny, gentle young man, one who had, with his brother, my Uncle Hymie, had hitchhiked from the family abode on Avenue K and Nostrand Ave in Brooklyn, New York to Hollywood, California to try to make their fortune in the movies as a comic pair, like Abbot and Costello. Didn’t work and so they hitchhiked cross-country back to Brooklyn less than a year later. In his youth Ira, my mother  described Ira as a “happy-go-lucky,” “gentle person”, with knack for gentle Jewish humor, genuinely funny. I  know that my mother loved him deeply and would remember, this or that incident from their youth over the years until she died in 2009.

Although Uncle Ira was always funny until he died – all of my uncles had wonderful senses of humor – his youthful spark was gone. Under the surface of his playful nature, one could sense a darkness, an anger that remained with him until the end. Today I am rather certain his condition would be diagnosed as post traumatic stress syndrome – PTSD -, that psychic imprinting so hard to shake resulting from exposure to torture, war, witnessing or experiencing violence, psychological, physical or both. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was a young teenager, all my mother could explain was “he came home from the war and was never the same.”

“The war” changed Uncle Ira.

For my family, growing up, there was only one war; it is as if no other war ever existed or if it did, it paled in comparison: World War II. True enough, it was quite a war. When it was over some 55 million people – a conservative figure – had died, no not “died” but “exterminated” – 11 million in Nazi concentration camps, executed and dumped into common graves, or gassed in mobile death chambers (of which some six million were Jews, including all of our extended relatives in eastern Poland, Byelorus and Lithuania). All my uncles and my father served in the military during the war. Uncle Sam (Stone) was in military police. Uncle Joe (Magazine) joined the navy. Uncle Willie (Magazine) served in what was called the army-air corps at the time as did my father, and if I am not mistaken Uncle Leo (Bradspies). I don’t recall which branch Uncles Lou and Hymie (Magazine) served but I do know they served. Close family friend, Uncle Frank (Greenberger), from a German-Catholic family, served in military intelligence and my mom volunteered state-side with the Coast Guard.

They were all fighting Nazis and did so with no hesitation.

Uncle Ira joined the army medical corps.

He was on a hospital ship off the coast of France during the D-Day Invasion, an experience, which my mother insisted, changed his life and temperament forever. And there, in the heat of one of World War II’s biggest battles that can can be compared with the likes of Stalingrad, Kurst Salient, the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, Ira Magazine was thrown into horrors of  modern warfare. But at least, as it was related, while Uncle Ira was “at D-Day” he was neither wounded nor killed as a landing craft hit the beach, nor among those in those first days after June 6, 1944 mowed down by Nazi machine gunners perched in concrete bunkers on the heights above the beaches. But still …

He was on a hospital ship a few miles off the French coast helping to patch up and comfort the wounded, and to process the dead. He saw so much shattered flesh and bone, suffering and dying those days along with the range of human emotion that went along with it. Like so many WW2 veterans (and those of other wars) when Uncle Ira returned from “the European theater” as it came to be known, he was “never the same,’ – a comment I heard repeatedly growing up. I didn’t understand until seeing the consequences of war myself in Algeria and later Lebanon. Then I “kind of” got it.



One Comment leave one →
  1. Gene Fitzpatrick permalink
    August 23, 2017 9:54 am

    Good read Rob. The highest compliment to give a writer. It jostled in me multiple memories of being a 10-12 year old in the NY area (Jersey City) in WWII. Oddly enough the fact that ALL your mother’s brothers served in WWII jostled my memory of ALL the males of large families with many sons wearing uniforms ——- the Lees and Burkes and Weeks with five or more in uniform. Nearly all dead now. Although two weeks ago I talked to a 92 year old in Lincoln Nebraska who was a belly gunner on a B-17 and when I was 12 years old all my male peers knew that the ‘tail-gunner’ had the lowest life-expectancy while the belly gunner was locked into his position and only could get out when back in England. My! this nostalgia is somewhat of an odd bloke isn’t it.

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