Sisters compile, publish father’s WWII letters Sam Lesner, Chicago newspaperman, later wrote column in the Herald
By AARON GETTINGER
Sam Lesner was a legend for his 60 years in Chicago Journalism. In his retirement years from the old Chicago Daily New, he did not like being “out of the game” and so he wrote a column for the Hyde Park Herald in the 1980s.
Herald Publisher Bruce Sagan says of his writing: “Sam with his typewriter, you did not need the photo.”
But like millions of others, his life was interrupted by the Second World War. And he left his job at the Chicago Daily News, and with his reporter’s eye and his storyteller’s skill he wrote home, every day if he could. But there was a running conflict for the Journalist: Tell it like it is from basic training to the hospital work at the Battle of the Bulge in Europe, but don’t upset the family.
But write he did, every day. And now those letters from the “overage” soldier are now a book. Here is that real life American story through Sam’s remarkable letters, hidden away in a storage bin for 70 years.
His two daughter,Roberta Lesner Bernstein and Judy Lesner Holstein, raised in Hyde Park and neighboring communities,paid homage to their father by publishing the letters he wrote to their mother during his serving time in the war.
The book, Somewhere in Europe: The World War II Letters of Sam Lesner is available at Hyde Park book stores and online.
A native Chicagoan Sam Lesner began his newspaper career archiving clips for the Chicago Daily News in 1928 at the age of 19. An aspiring opera singer at the time, Lesner’s proficiency in Yiddish got him his newspaper break when he was asked to review an opening theater that put on shows in that language. This lead to a full time column writing for the paper which he did until he was drafted to serve in World War II, just a month before he would have aged out of the Selective Service System. He became a medic and left behind his wife and a baby, Roberta . and started his colorful and emotional chronicles of his time in service.
And now, Bernstein and Holstein have compiled and published the book of their father’s war letters, from basic training to treating soldiers with war shattered bodies at European hospital sites. Also scattered in the book are reviews of the chance performances he happened to see and the books he read.
“There’s a beautiful story in the book about going to the Paris Opera on December 23—he had a one-day leave,” said Holstein. He wrote “What’s more, My Darling, I could hardly check the tears of longing and loneliness for you as I sat enthralled by a performance of Othello in the magnificent National Opera House,” he wrote. “Red plush, My Darling, makes the galleries as beautiful as the main floor seats.”
And then, said Holstein, “A high-ranking American officer came onto the stage and said all US military personnel must evacuate immediately. ‘Get back to your bases, we’re having an emergency situation.'” It was the Battle of the Bulge.
Pages later: “It was about 5 p.m. today when we heard the official news,” Lesner wrote to his wife on Victory in Europe Day. “We were at chow. There was absolutely no demonstration because every man of us thought only of home.”
“The day is glorious,” he wrote. “Last night I smelled the fertile earth for the first time, and I remarked on it to Max. It was a strange sensation, suddenly being so aware of the fruitful earth. ‘This is spring at last,’ I said, little realizing the morrow would be truly spring again for the world This day then, May 7, 1945, is the beginning. While much of the world’s war-weary bow their heads, we raise ours high and say ‘Thank God’ for His safe guidance and protection.”
His daughters said Lesner had previously requested that his wife save the letters so he could compile and publish them later.
“It was his intention to write his insights, his experience, his philosophy that evolved through his experience as a soldier in the war,” said Bernstein, “and he never wrote the book. He wrote many, many years of columns, but not the book. So we thought another reason to distill dad’s letters was to fulfill his idea of writing, using his letters.” The letters were found in a long forgotten storage bin in the Lesner home.
Lesner went back to the Daily News after his discharge, watching film screenings and reviewing them in the day, going to nightclubs at evening and filing reviews of them the same night or next morning. He later broadcast a nightly celebrity talk show on NBC Radio, where he spoke with celebrities like Danny Thomas and Cyd Charisse, covered the 1960s Folk Revival and was present at the first performance of the Second City improv company. From Hyde Park, the family moved to housing built for veterans in Jeffrey Manor on the Southeast Side,
“He was the name people quoted,” said Bernstein. “We grew up hearing people say, ‘Well, if Sam Lesner says to see it, of course we’ll go.’” He mentored Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
When the Chicago Daily News closed in 1978, Lesner was 69 and had no interest in retiring. A senior citizen’s job placement agency got him a job in the Herald’s advertising department. One thing led to another, and soon he had a column, “Hyde Parkers, All!” which he continued until his death in 1991.
Somewhere in Europe: The World War II Letters of Sam Lesner is available on Amazon, the Seminary Co-op, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., and 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St.