Community feature: ‘Letters Home’ play turns a local lens on World War I

Erica Thompson
Toby Brief at the Columbus Jewish Historical Society

It all began with the journey of 350 letters.

Penned during the early 1900s, the letters eventually made the short trip from World War I Camp Sherman near Chillicothe, Ohio, to Cincinnati. Then, they settled in Columbus for a quiet life, reemerging at a yard sale in the mid-1900s. After a long stint in a Bexley home, they retired to the Columbus Jewish Historical Society (CJHS) at the turn of the 21st century.

“The letters began to come in to us about eight years ago,” said Toby Brief, CJHS curator of the historical collection. “[They're] from David Pastor to his cousin, Anna Pastor [in Cincinnati]. And it was a series of love letters [written] from about 1915 to about 1920.”

The letters show how David and Anna, who were distant cousins, progressed from having a friendship to getting married. It was not an unusual practice at the time, and they wed without stigma, Brief said.

The letters are the foundation for the CJHS theater production, “Letters Home: Jewish Columbus in WWI,” which runs for just one night on Wednesday, May 30 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus. While the play focuses heavily on the Pastors, other stories are told via letters the CJHS received from other families of World War I veterans.

“They wrote every day,” Brief said of the soldiers stationed in camps in the U.S. “There were other guys who were writing back from France. Certainly we don't have nearly as many of those letters. But the ones that were written from camps, you could get two in a day. … So there's just volumes of this stuff.”

Brief even donated some from her own family, and as she transcribed them, she was moved by the distinct voices of the then-recent immigrants. “Somebody needs to hear these,” she decided.

The play and the current CJHS exhibit, “Central Ohio Jews & the World War,” coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in 1918. Both provide a snapshot into the lives of Central Ohio World War I veterans (there were a total of 262).

“This play captures, in a way that I have never experienced before either in fiction or in documentaries, what it was like to live through World War I,” said director John Stefano, who retired as the chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at Otterbein University in 2016. “And it does it in a very specific way focused on the Jewish community.”

As an example, one of David's letters to Anna describes his brief return home to Columbus for Yom Kippur. “Dear, how did you fast, and how are you feeling now?” he wrote in a letter dated Sept. 17, 1918. “Believe me, honey, I surely did pray and of course you were constantly in my thoughts.”

The production also captures camp life for the soldiers. Camp Sherman, the third largest in the nation, was like a small city with a hospital, library, theaters and churches. But there was also a sense of dread hanging over life there.

“We know that they were concerned they were gonna go overseas,” Brief said. “That really didn't let up.”

Because women generally did a better job of saving wartime correspondence, many of the letters are one-sided, Brief said. In fact, they only have one letter Anna wrote to David. As a result, play attendees will have to use their imagination to fill in the gaps in the storyline. But it doesn't take away from the suspense.

“It's the kind of arc that a playwright might try to write,” Stefano said. “But to have it in real life … it's just astonishing.”

The actors portraying the characters at home or at camp serve as their own narrators onstage. Depicting characters in France, or “over there,” was more challenging.

“Partly for my own sanity, and partly for logistic reasons, I decided not to try and cast … thousands and find costumes for them and bring them onstage,” Stefano said. “We decided that we would put them on film.”

So as the audience is hearing letters from the battlefields, they will see images onscreen.

“I just can't tell you what it's like to listen to these letters come alive,” Stefano said. “There is something serendipitous about this cache of letters. … Even though [the Pastors] didn't have children, somehow the letters survived.”

“There is just something about this story that wants to be told,” he continued. “And I feel like we're fulfilling that desire.”

Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus

8-9:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 30

1125 College Ave., Bexley