Saturday, 22 March 2008

Letter 9 - February 15, (1919)

Rome, Excelsior

Dear Family,-

When I tried to type my last letter to you – soon after arriving here in Rome yesterday, I was so tired that I’m sure it makes little sense – so I’ll start again.

We had a violent but successful struggle getting out of Paris. Finally we were all five located, hand baggage and all, in a little compartment with one stranger. We had planned to dine at the station before leaving, but Szold missed connections and didn’t arrive until a few moments before the train pulled out so that we had no time. However I managed by dint of facial contortions and gestures to have a box of food made up at the buffet and a large bottle of wine – which served to satiate the greater pangs of hunger. The wine especially was good and was strong and served to make us all happier. Because our leaving was insisted upon by Dr. F. against the protests of Robison, Rubinow and Szold who would have preferred to wait until sleepers could be obtained thru to Rome – which would have meant a week’s delay and the party showed signs of becoming most disconsolate and uncongenial, so it fell upon Dr. F. and myself to cheer them up. By ten we had decided to “retire”, so wrapping ourselves in blankets we sank into our seats. Soon all was quiet – each tho’t the others asleep. The seats none too comfortable at best were certainly not made for sleeping. Of course I managed to get my full share of slumber – but my sympathy was certainly with the unhappy crowd that I saw on awakening at 8 the next morning. A more grouchy, bedraggled, unkempt lot I’ve never seen. We stopped at a little way station and I hopped out and got them all some coffee – which was a horrible mixture containing condensed milk ad saccharin. But it was warm

And everybody felt better. News was that we were only two hours late, so we returned and spent the remaining time telling jokes and admiring the always increasingly beautiful scenery of the foothills of the alps, with their snow-covered summits and wooded girdles of pine. An occasional little village would drift by with its inevitable church and its substantial little houses. Most of the land, even the most hilly, was under cultivation. The latter is achieved by means of sticks to which the plants attach themselves and grow upright. French peasant women would be working in the fields, clothed in their costumes of loud colors. Altogether we were compensated for our night’s discomforts.

Shortly after noon we arrived at Modane, on the Italian border, where we were to be inspected. Here was located a small detachment of U.S. military police to watch for deserters and A.W.O.L.s (which in army parlance means absent without leave) and several R.T.O.s (railway transportation officer). In charge of both was a young sergeant, who on looking at my passport and military status remarked that he was from Balto. And that his bother lived at 1600 Linden Ave. Then he discovered my name and informed me that he had worked at H.S. & Co. After which inspection of the party was made easy. It certainly has been wise to travel in uniform, it has constantly served to obtain immediate entre everywhere.

From Modane was but a three hour ride to Torino from where we were to board the train for Rome. At Torino we met a book agent who assured us we could easily get a first class compartment. He begged us to leave matters to him and have supper. Bt Szold and I were doubtful so we remained while the others ate. Soon the train pulled in; and it was most fortunate that we waited. For such a scramble, such a struggle ensued that memories of bygone football games awakened. We literally fought for a compartment and fought to keep it. And once inside we dared not leave, as there were apparently far more travelling than the seats would hold. Once I had to bodily eject some ambitious porter who had succeeded in planting a suitcase on one of the seats in spite of Szold’s protests. Finally the three diners returned and we went out in quest of food. The Cook man had purchased our tickets, which was unfortunate. They cost us L125.00 a piece for 14 hours travel – which I had gotten our tickets at Paris to Modane, also 14 hrs travel, at 25.00 Fr (Fr.100=115 Liras) because of the fact that I’m in uniform and exhibit a letter from the British Embassy stating we are a medical unit travelling as a commission to Palestine.

We tho’t to while away some of the time playing cards so we made some of paper and Rubinow, Robison, Szold and I played poker, - much to the amusement of a group of onlookers outside. We used matches for chips. As usual I won! Meantime Dr. Fr. had fallen asleep so we all followed suit. We piled our suitcases on the floor and made ourselves quite comfortable. At one of the stations early in the morning I had gotten out to buy some chocolate – the first really good chocolate we’ve had since leaving the U.S - and had succeeded in smashing a window. And the night air was cold, so the blankets came into very good use. Most of us slept soundly until early in the morning when a loud humming awoke us. An airplane was flying just outside the window about ten feet off the ground. He waved to us and then arose several thousand feet. We were on very flat country, travelling parallel to the shore of the Medit. A number of airplanes were visible in the distance – and soon we passed a large hangar.

At eleven we arrived in Rome and soon were in a modern taxi headed for this hotel. All of us were grateful to have arrived – but the clear blue sky and the comparatively warm air were unexpected; it was the first fine day we’ve had since being in Europe. And soon we were established in a fine suite of three rooms and two baths at the reasonable rate of L 125.00 daily (slightly over $4.00) and gratefully splashing in tubs of warm water.

Late in the afternoon a Zionist enthusiast appeared name Dr. Bleustein and we succeeded finally in establishing linguistic relations with him with the forbidden language. Thru him we met a young Polish boy who, with about 150 other others, has after three months wandering, succeeded in getting this far on his journey to Palestine. He claims there are six thousand in the same predicament in Vienna – all young people – refugees from Poland.

This morning we went to temple. A huge, gorgeous, orthodox affair it was. The services were most chaotic and uninteresting. Afterwards we lunched at a kosher restaurant where we met a Zionist of some fame – Ushiskin*. He talked interminably!

We walked to Adrian’s tomb – an ancient affair which has partly been rebuilt. It was surrounded by what was once a moat. Inside, except for its unwieldy size, its unique illumination by means of cutting holes thru the walls, the most interesting feature was an old death cell wherein the victim was placed and left to die. If he proved stubborn or tough a trap door was opened and he was slid into the Tiber.

From there we meandered to St. Peter’s Cathedral which is attached to the Pope’s estate. Compared with it St. Paul’s in London is non existent. Naturally the former is more modern and its architecture permits of greater responsibilities. But these possibilities are fully realized. The huge columns at the entrance are made of perfectly blended marble. Within the huge arches are supported by giant pillars of marble inlaid symmetrically with smaller slabs of colored stone.

In the center is a large tabernacle, modelled after one of Solomon’s temple. Below this behind several barred doors (opened by their keeper for a consideration) rest the bones of Sts. Peter and Paul, in a beautiful gold casket made by Benvenuto Cellini. We wandered about for a little. There were some rather interesting old paintings and marble sculpture, etc. Of the latter there was a lion, a wonderful creature, giant in proportions, about to make a spring. Every muscle is prepared and his huge jaw is already opening in anticipation. Gaze at him for a moment and unconsciously you shudder. Compared to him our 42 St. and 5th Ave. lions are a dismal failure.

While the rest of the party returned to the hotel, Szold and I went out to the coliseum. It proved quite interesting with its tiers of stone on one side five high. While standing in the middle of the inside we chanced to look up and beheld directly over us an airplane looping the loop – the contrast of the different ages was ludicrously striking.

This eve we had planned to go to the opera – but could get no seats.

Lots of love and kisses


Ushiskin – Menahem Mendel Ushiskin:- b. Russia 1863 – d. Jerusalem 1941; active as organizer in every Zionist effort from 1881 in Russia; leader in Zionist Congresses, aliya groups, delegate to Paris Peace Conference after which he made aliya*.

Aliya (literally ascending) is the Hebrew word for immigration to the Land of Israel. The meaning of ascent in this context is spiritual as well as physical; all Jews are educated in the belief that this ascent is an essential part of Judaism. It is the ultimate form of identification with one's people, the Jewish people, whose life and destiny are inextricably tied to the Land of Israel.” (

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