My mother, Mollie Weinstein Schaffer, served her country as a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) during World War II. In her later years that service became the focal point of her life. She was very proud of her husband, children, and grandchildren, but she was also proud to be an American Jewish War Veteran.
She saw so many changes in her 95-year journey through life, learning to adapt and “go with the flow,” especially raising children in the 60s. My mother’s journey begun in Detroit in the early 20th century. Her parents were Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in 1910 from Kiev, Russia.
Her late 20s were the defining moment of her generation and her life. She was a part of “the greatest generation.” Like most of her contemporaries, she did not talk much about her war service. Our only inkling was that my sister and I would wear her uniform as a Halloween costume when we were young.
I remember in 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day, my mother spent the entire year being upset. She started talking more about her service. We saw some of the letters she had written home, but we were all busy with our young children and our work. So we didn’t pursue writing a book. Every time I would read in the newspaper about an organization that was gathering “oral histories” of WWII veterans, I would mention it to my mother, but she always said, “I want my own book.”
When World War II began, my mother tried to enlist but was rejected because of low weight. So she went home and fattened herself up. A few months later, she was accepted into the WAC and, after basic training in Florida, was on her way to a wartime experience in Europe. She worked in Medical Intelligence as a secretary, following the American troops into England, France, and finally Germany with the Army of Occupation. She returned to the U.S. in November 1945 on the Queen Mary.
My mother’s experiences are recounted in Mollie’s War, a book she and I wrote and published in August 2010 based on the letters and photos that she sent home and that her sister saved.
My mother was always cognizant of being Jewish, and this is a theme throughout the book. When she arrived in newly liberated Paris in September 1944, she used some Nazi stationery to write to her family.
“Yep, we are finally in Paris and you can see that the Americans took over the situation. Can you imagine—ME—with the “handle” that I’ve got using Hitler’s stationery?”
The time that we spent together writing this book was priceless. Reading the letters together and listening to my mother’s additional commentary made the experience so much more meaningful.
My parents’ love story could have been a Hollywood movie. Both my mother and my father, Jack Schaffer, served in WWII. After all of the excitement of serving overseas and having so many boyfriends, Mollie received an honorable discharge and went home to Detroit to sort things out. But her life took an unexpected twist with the intervention of Ruth Schaffer.
Ruth, a friend from Chicago, had corresponded with Mollie throughout the war, sent her salamis to Paris and was mentioned in my mother’s letters to her family. Ruth’s older brother Jack was a captain in the Army who had been stationed in the CBI Theater leading convoys of supply trucks from India to China across the Himalayan Mountains and now he, too, was coming home.
Instead of returning directly home to Chicago, he traveled to Detroit first to visit his mother, who was staying with one of his other sisters who lived in Detroit. Ruth felt that Jack and Mollie would be perfect for each other and arranged for them to go on a blind date on New Year’s Eve 1945.
Ruth was right! After their second date, Mollie said to Jack, “For two cents, I’d marry you.” Jack promptly gave Mollie two cents and within three weeks of their first date they were married in Chicago. Their marriage lasted until my dad’s death 54 years later.
They settled in Chicago and raised three children. My mother worked as a medical secretary in a hospital while we were in elementary school. We may have been the original “latch key kids.” But she was always there for us. She would stay up late at night to help us with school projects and reports. She had perfect penmanship and would help design our report covers using India ink. After their children married and grandchildren arrived, my parents were at the point in their lives when they could retire and devote their time to the grandchildren. Luckily for us, my parents considered this a delight and not a hardship.
As I was leaving my mother’s apartment the before day before she passed away, I told her that I loved her. And she said to me “I love you too.” Those were the last words she spoke to me.
This is such a strange feeling ... to be without parents. Not to be able to call your parents on the phone and ask them for advice or just a simple question, not to hear their voices again. We are thankful for the times we spent together and for teachings and knowledge that our mother gave us. She helped shape each of us into the people we are today. It is just amazing that she had the courage to leave the comforts of her home in Detroit many years ago for the unknown of a war zone.
Mom passed away on April 8, 2012 during Passover. We remember and are grateful to the generations of Mollies whose service and sacrifices have allowed us, their children, to live our lives in freedom.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Mollie Weinstein Schaffer, 1916 - 2012." (Viewed on December 8, 2019) <https://jwa.org/weremember/schaffer-mollie>.