A 1940s Interview
Hi-di-ho, friends! Today is a very special day here at The 1940s Experience. As you know, one of the joys I have in writing about the 1940s is learning directly from people who lived it. I'm so tickled to introduce to you a very special person to my family: Mrs. Gert Block. Talented artist, craftswoman, and an incredible friend, mother and grandmother of five, on her 93rd Birthday TODAY! She's been so kind to sit for an interview about her life on the home front during the war and her life events. It's been a wonderful experience to get to know her better. Here are some excerpts from the book we compiled for her friends and family in celebration of this momentous occasion!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, GERT
Hi Gert! I'd love for you share with my friends a little about yourself: where you grew up, your parents, etc.
My mother was born in Bialystok Poland and by the time she reached 18 years of age, life for her and her family was facing a serious and polarizing change. Pogroms and uprising forcing anti-Semitism were on the rise. Young women were targeted by a group of men called Bolsheviks. They were being assaulted and raped; their lives were in constant danger. With the urging of her parents and her own intuition, my mother decided to go to America. Arrangements were made with relatives who lived in New York that they would sponsor her and she would live them. So she set forth to a new world and a completely different lifestyle. Change was difficult, living with a family she did not know, learning a new language, finding a job. All this was overwhelming to say the least.
A couple of years later, she was introduced to my father. Very handsome and personable, he was ten years her senior and born on the East Side of New York. A romance ensued and within a year they were married on September 11, 1923 and lived in the Bronx. Six months after my birth an unexpected upheaval took place. My father’s parents had migrated to a small town in Massachusetts called Millis. They were quite elderly and in poor health. Of my father’s six siblings, he was asked to go to Millis to help care for his parents. So we packed up and left for a new life experience. About three years later, my dear brother was born.
What do you remember about Pearl Harbor. You were a young woman of 17 then. Where were you when you first heard the news of the attack?
On Sunday, December 7, 1941 our country, very unexpectedly, was Japanese bombed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. We first heard it on the radio and the next day at school. Soon after, World War Two was declared and everyone’s lives were altered.
I heard that you had an American Red Cross uniform. In what capacity did you serve as a Gray Lady or where you a nurse?
Once a week after work, I volunteered to be a Gray Lady at a veteran’s hospital in Boston and was given a Gray Lady uniform with a cap. I had kept this uniform for many years until I moved and now I am sorry that I did not keep it for posterity. My job at the hospital was to deliver mail and packages and make small-talk with the veterans.
Like most young women, did you attend U.S.O dances?
I did!attend. I signed up to go to some U.S.O dances. About 20 girls met at the American Legion building. It was always on a Saturday night and an army truck would pick us up. With assistance, we had to climb into the truck. The weather was always frigid and to keep warm we were given blankets because we had to sit on long, steel benches for the 1 ½ hour ride to Fort Devin. When we arrived, a jukebox provided music; refreshments were served and a good time was had by all. We didn’t stay too long, maybe about an hour and a half since we had a long trip home.
Seventy plus years later, we hear how everyone did something to aid the boys toward victory. What were some other ways that your family assisted in the war effort?
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, young men chose to enlist or be drafted. My brother was in his last year of high school. With the urging of my father who was a staunch American citizen and a WWI veteran, my brother was one of the first to enlist in the war. He chose to join the Army Air Forces and in due time was sent to England.
When I graduated high school, my first job was working for an attorney on State Street in Boston. This did not last long; the war was still raging and civil service workers were immediately needed to help the cause. I took the civil service exam and in about a month, I was informed that I passed the test. I got a job as a stenographer, working for different military bases at the Boston Navy Yard. From there, the Quartermaster Depot, and finally the Air Force. I must say the jobs were very routine and not challenging but it paid well, raises come automatically and that made it worthwhile and I was still helping the cause.
On certain days, you could go to the high school and donate blood, which I did a number of times. Before long, the town had practice mock air-raid enemy attacks. When the whistle would blow two successive times, it meant that we were under attack. My father was assigned to be an air raid warden. He had to put on his uniform and hard hat then walk the streets to tell people to lower their houselights and stay indoors. When the siren would blow one long time, the make-believe raid was over and people could go back to normal.
Pretty soon our daily life revolved around receiving mail and praying for his safe return. The war brought on instant life changes. Ration books were given to each family and food like: sugar, butter, meat were allotted. Also gas, silk stockings, and many other necessities were rationed.
Our American Legion became the center of activity. My mother and I would go there to roll bandages and to roll goody packages to be sent to all branches of the service. We made ourselves available whenever we could. My dad also was very involved with the Legion’s happenings, having been commander in 1939, which he held with great honor.
When I was 21, I decided to go to finishing school. It was called the Académie Moderne on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. I felt a little charm and grace could never hurt. The course included: posture, walking properly, elocution, make-up, style and manners.
As dark and dangerous as those four years of war were, do you have a bright, happy memory?
A memory that I will never forget created a bit of drama one summer afternoon. I will share it with you. A boyfriend was home on leave from the air force and he came to visit me. We were sitting on my lawn, talking, when out of the blue he asked me if I would like to go for an airplane ride. I looked at him like he had two heads. He was now a licensed air force lieutenant, so that qualified him. There was a small airport a few miles from my home where you could rent a two-seater piper cub. With a great deal of trepidation, I agreed to go. I told my mother that I was going on an airplane ride with a friend (Labby) whom she knew. She didn’t want me to go, but I did. Well, a short while later we came zooming over my house very low. I could clearly see my mother waving a cloth napkin and probably saying her prayers for us at the same time. Where I lived, the area was a scene of a number summer resort hotels. As we flew low over these hotels, people were flocking outside wondering what was happening. They couldn’t quite make out what was going on. That night in the Milford newspaper, the headline read: “Boyfriend Takes Girlfriend on Joyride.” This was quite an adventure and was the talk of the town for a while.
Now, this is a sensitive question, but one readers need to understand. As a Jewish-American were you aware of the atrocities happening in Europe? If so, can you share with us your family’s concerns? Did you have relatives living in Europe who were affected?
Yes, it did affect my family. While the Nazi regime was becoming more pervasive and frightening, my mother was concerned for her family. Her mother, father, and siblings who were left behind when she came to the United States were now a major concern to her. She religiously corresponded to them and periodically sent parcels of clothing. After a while letters stopped coming and we can only assume they all perished in the Holocaust. Saturday being the Jewish Sabbath, my mother would sit at the kitchen table, prayer books in hand. Her prayers were said and tears would flow. We all felt so sad for her personal suffering. The Holocaust sure touched us personally.
Also, while the war was still on our country was befallen with sad news as our fourth-term president Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed away. He was much-loved and admired by many, however, Jewish people lost favor with him in the latter part of his presidency while anti-Semitism was raging in parts of Europe. Many people tried to escape from other countries. One large group of Jewish refugees tried to make their departure on a small vessel headed for Cuba. When they arrived, they were not given permission to disembark and so they headed for the Florida coast in hopes that they could land there. A call was made to President Roosevelt for permission to disembark, but he denied that right. The Jews were very disappointed and headed back to Germany and in the end, many perished in the Holocaust and for that reason many people were disappointed in the President.
One of the things I’d love for my readers to know about you, is your remarkable career as an artist and craftswoman. I, personally, adore your Fancy Hat cards, which I send to readers. When did you first become involved in the arts, and at 93 are you still creative, still working with your hands?
One day, my niece decided to take art lessons at a local school. She had some knowledge of art but I was “green behind the ears.” We had a wonderful teacher and in no time, I was hooked. Every week I eagerly looked forward to another lesson. My art teacher became my “guru”, my inspiration and highly motivated me, and shortly after she recognized a creativity in me that I never thought I had. Along that line, I developed a craft of making clock collage wall hangings, a very unusual art form. By the way, I got to meet the greatest artist of all time: Salvatore Dali. Since I used a lot of his clock images in my collages, I thought how wonderful it would be to meet him. My husband knew his agent, Mr. Parker. We arranged a date to meet Dali at the Regency hotel. I was accompanied by my husband and daughter and was so excited. Dali was there with his lovely wife Gala, and most hospitable by inviting us to have drinks. I showed him my collages and he was impressed, giving me some ideas on how to improve and market them. He was very gracious and I took pictures with him. He gave me several his autographs. I have to say it was one of the most momentous days of my life to meet and touch someone so renowned in the art world.
The first year of taking art lessons there was an outdoor art exhibit. I thought about joining but I was so new at this, I felt intimidated. However, with the encouragement of my art teacher, I joined. It was my first experience. My son helped me set up my display. Luckily, it was a beautiful day and the crowds gathered. Soon I was getting a lot of compliments. Before long, I made my first sale of a small floral painting with stands. I was so excited. They say once you sell you first painting, you sure are now a professional. As the day went on, I made more sales, but the big one was when I sold a large 16x20 painting the liking of Sir Walter Raleigh with an outstanding ruffled collar. A young couple bought it and I was thrilled to see them walking hand-in-hand with my painting in tow. I think I cried. At the end of the day, rewards of ribbons were awarded and I was surprised to see an honorable mention for my clock collage. So, my first experience was a winner in my eyes. My motivation to do more shows had now overtaken me. The next show was a big one: a three-day weekend at Greenwich Village and it went very well. This now became a compelling force and my great passion. It never left me.
In time, I created the Fancy Hat stationary line, which is now being sold on the internet, as well as making brooches from clock parts. They, too, developed a large following. My artwork brought me into a very private world. I had my “women’s cave” where I could be alone and express my God-given talents. The results of all this has brought a lot of happiness to people who brought my creative and being paid made my efforts very rewarding.
I’ve saved my favorite question for last. Tell me about the love of your life. How did you meet your late husband, Robert?
In 1953, My parents 30th anniversary was coming up and I thought what a good opportunity it would be to break in my new, red convertible car and treat them for a long weekend at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort, located in upstate New York.
The day after we arrived I decided to familiarize myself with the grounds. When I got to the skating rink I stopped and watched all the enthusiasts enjoying themselves. As I watched, I zeroed into one young man who appeared to be skating alone. He was having some difficulty trying to keep abreast, kept falling, getting up and falling again. I chuckled to myself and noticed that he was quite good looking.
That evening after dinner the single folks gathered in the lobby (also known as the Snack Pit) and who should be there but the skating expert that I had noticed earlier in the day. I moved closer to him and started the conversation by saying “I noticed you skating this morning and by the way you skate very well.” He looked at me like I had two heads and said in surprise “Who me?” Well that broke the ice and a conversation ensued. He then asked me if I would like to go down to the bar for a drink where they also had music and dancing. I accepted. While having a drink with him, an unknown guy came over to ask me to dance. What to do? I said yes and after the dance I returned to my skater. I thought that the fact that I danced with a new person raised the antenna of the skater. As the evening wore on, he asked me for my telephone number and address. I think the fact that I lived in Massachusetts did not go over too well since he came from Brooklyn. The next day when we left Grossinger’s, my parents were very happy with the whole experience: the food, the entertainment and the change of pace. As for me, I had a lovely weekend but never expected to hear from my new friend because of the distance involved. Then about six weeks later on Christmas Day when I was not at home, my father took a phone message for me. Later that day, when I returned home, my dad told me that a young man by the name of Bob Block called and that he’d call back that evening, and he did.
I was happy to hear from him and he asked me if I was planning a trip to New York in the near
future. I thought quickly and remembered that the following weekend was New Year’s and that I was planning a visit to my aunt who lived near him (a big lie) and so a three-day weekend was planned. Well it was a memorable weekend. He took me to see the Broadway show “The King and I” with Yul Brenner, dinner at Gallagher’s, the UN, Radio City, and cocktails at the Algonquin, and the Empire State Building. He sure was a man about town and knew how to treat a woman in great style. From then on, he came to Millis the following weekend and we continued to see each other every weekend. Very soon, on Valentine’s Day, he proposed to me on top of the Empire State Building. Four months later, in June, we were married and the rest is history.
Aw! What a whirlwind romance! I'm so appreciative for this precious time together. Is there anything else you'd like to share with my readers?
As I look back, my artwork brought me into a very private world “my woman’s cave.” Here I nourished my addiction to art. Hours went by in silence. I could explore my God-given talents to my heart-content and looking back, the results of all my efforts. I brought a lot of happiness to the people who appreciated my talent and brought my creations. How rewarding it is! And so, In ending … we all have a purpose in life and I found mine. I hope my children will cherish the memories of growing up in a devoted family surrounded with love. At the age of 93, I am no longer prolific, but have just booked a show for a woman’s luncheon. How lucky am I?!
Thank you, Gert for spreading your love and warmth with my friends here at the 1940s Experience. We are the lucky ones! I am so proud to know you and equally blessed that you are such a dear friend to my mother and me. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
Friends, check out Gert's Facebook page!! HERE