Magnifying Family History: My Mom’s Panzer Binoculars

For this assignment I have decided to research the history/family history behind a pair of Panzer Tank Binoculars. Before starting this assignment I had wrongly assumed that my family didn’t have many family heirlooms, due mainly to the fact that anything I know about my family has come from stories told to me by my mom and that any heirlooms we did have were given to my Uncle or in the possession of my Grandma. However, when I asked my mom if we had any heirloom, she said yes proving my assumption incorrect and told me that she had tons.

Upon doing my research about the Panzer Tank Binoculars I was able to learn that they had been used by German Tank Crews during World War II. Finding this out immediately led me to wonder how my family had gotten in possession of a pair of binoculars used by Nazi soldiers during WWII. Prior to my research, I had already known that my great grandma, on my mother’s side, had left Germany to come to America, right as Hitler had been taking power before WWII. She had been worried , rightfully so, about what Hitler would do, which was sadly not the case for many others who had eventually been affected by the hatred that Hitler had spread throughout Germany and the rest of Europe. It is from this, and from further confirmation by my mom, that I know that the binoculars hadn’t been in my family’s possession due to their involvement as Nazis during WWII. In fact, my mom has always told me that my great grandmother wouldn’t teach her German because of what had happened in Germany making it clear that my family was not in support of anything that Hitler had done prior to and during WWII.

The binoculars are extremely heavy and weigh about 20 pounds, holding them is like holding at least 2 big science textbooks at the same time. They are made of metal and have a rubber guard surrounding the two eyepieces that protrude out from the binoculars. At the base of the eyepieces are visible adjusters, mostly likely for adjusting the focus of the binoculars. On the top of the binoculars is another adjustor knob, but I am unsure of its use. The binoculars appear to have been painted gold over top a brick red color, which has started to come through in multiple places. The bottom of the binoculars is flat, most likely to allow for the binoculars to rest on a surface without being wrecked. The lenses themselves take up the whole front of the binoculars. The binoculars at the lenses are approximately 8 inches wide and are almost a foot long, 11.5 inches, from the base of the eye piece to the lenses,

On the right side of the binoculars is an engraving reading, “D.F 10X 80, cxn, 76532, 51117, F.” While conducting my research I was able to learn that the D.F stands for Doppelfernrohr, a German word meaning “double telescope”. I was also able to find out that “cxn” isn’t just some random engraving, it’s the manufacturer’s code standing for E. Busch, Rathenow. This engraving is also able to tell me that these binoculars were made post 1942, and they were used by Luftwaffe Flak Artillery ground crews who had used them to spot and identify enemy aircraft. They had also been used on the battlefield for tactical observation.

After completing this research and learning who the binoculars had been used by and when the binoculars were used, I am still left with more questions, mainly why did my family have these binoculars that had been used by a horrible group of people, why did my family have binoculars that at one time had been used by Nazis? I know that no one in my family had been Nazi sympathizers or Nazis themselves, my great grandmother left Germany because of her fear and worry surrounding Hitler, proving that my great grandmother hadn’t received these from her involvement in the war or as an heirloom from a family member or friend that had been involved. This doesn’t answer the question of why and how my family had these. 

When I asked my mom why we had them, I received a disappointing, but also somewhat relieving, answer cutting my research short significantly: she had bought them as an addition to her military collection, which I wasn’t aware was so expansive until doing this research. So while the historical significance behind these binoculars is a dark one and one representing severe hate, my family had no role in perpetuating this hate. The fact that the binoculars had just been an addition to a military collection also makes sense when I think about it, because my family has this immense interest in history and my mom and uncles often share different books on history with each other. The binoculars are no longer a vehicle of hate, but now serve as a reminder of a horrible period of time in history that sits in the library of my childhood home.

Source: https://www.panzeraufgd.co.uk/optics.html

Her Birthday, and The Lure of Music

October 26th, 1936: Helen Margaret Kotur purchased Symphonic Masterpieces. Sixty-three years later her great-grand-niece, Abigail Dentico, would be born on the same day. I found it sort of comical that Helen would have never guessed that Abigail Dentico’s college roommate would do a deep-dive on the internet, and dig up old records all because Abigail inherited three books from her great-grandmother’s sister.

The book inherited by Abigail that has the same date as her birthday in it, but 63-years earlier

Helen Margaret Kotur, later Helen Hunter, was born in Austria, Hungary in 1915, but very quickly her parents Anna and Andrew Kontur fled to Yonkers, New York. Shortly after, her sister, Yolanda (and Abigail’s great-grandmother), was born. Helen’s family then moved to, and continued to live in Buffalo for the majority of her life. Her sister Yolanda eventually moved to Rockland County, where Abigail’s family resided (and still resides now).

Abigails great-grandaunt, Helen Margaret Kotur, is in the second low right up front (1932)

Abigail Dentico is a music major at SUNY New Paltz, and while she has an extensive knowledge on music, she is an alluring Celloist. I consider myself lucky to share a space with someone who brings a powerful energy into the house. Abigail’s talents extend beyond her. Her father, David Dentico is a musician himself. And Abigail’s grandparents, Sheila Dentico and Michael Dentico, are lovers of music too. In Sheila’s obituary, she was claimed to adore music, especially going to her husband and son’s bands. And of course, Abigail’s great-grandmother (Yolanda Kotur), and great-grandaunt Helen Margaret Kutor had a love for music. Above I have pictured Helen as a violinist in 1932 at her high school Hutchinson-Central High School.

Newspaper Clipping’s in Helen’s three books.

Abigail provided me with three books: Symphonic Masterpieces, The Lure of Music and Beloved Friends: The Story of Tchaikowsky and Nadejda Von Meck. All three of these books have dates in them from the 1930s, around the time Helen was going to school, or finishing up school. Helen was an educated woman. In the 1930’s, only 2% of women achieved a high school degree in the city of Buffalo. As I dug through many of the newspaper clippings, I discovered that she had a love for the Irish Tenor, John McCormack. While the books were purchased in the 1930’s, the newspaper clippings range from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. Some of them are from a newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, others in New York City, and of course, some are from Buffalo, New York. Throughout the book, Helen underlines and writes notes about them. She had a love for music and playing music. She could have never comprehended how music would be passed down through her family.

Certificate of Marriage between Helen Kutor and Wilbur Hunter, 1949.

In 1949, Helen Kutor married Wilbur Hunter. They had no children together. Helen’s whereabouts are hard to discover after her marriage, but it is likely Fort Lauderdale. As I dug through her newspaper clippings, I discovered that many of them are from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am assuming after their marriage, Helen moved to Florida. Wilbur passed away in 1980. She passed away in 2003, leaving her sister Yolanda to take her remaining stuff. Yolanda and Helen were very close, and loved each other dearly. Many of Helen’s things went to Yolanda. When Yolanda passed away, Abigail’s grandparents, Michael and Sheila Dentico, cleaned out Yolanda’s house, and these books laid in a box. At the unfortunate passing of the beloved Micheal and Sheila (as they passed away in close proximity of time to each other), Abigail’s father, David Dentico, went to clean out the house. At that point, David must’ve picked up these books, most likely to save for Abigail, who loves classical music.

Abigail, on a trip home one day, asked if she could have them. She inquired with her father about who’s books they were, and he knew that it was Margaret’s book. David, however, was certain that she went ot Julliard. I spent a lot of time researching her name, using ancestry.com, looking through pictures– I was unable to find anything that said so. One 1940 census reported that she had only completed high school, and at that point she was 25. It is unlikely she went to Julliard.

Abigail helped me to start this project, but I took on a lot. I found a picture of her in high school, and found out she was a deep music lover. I also discovered that Abigail’s father, grandparents and great-grandparents were great lovers of music. I feel myself deeply attached to Abigail’s family, and I found that their love for music is intrinsic to their ancestry. All of them were great lovers of music, and performed on many occasions. Abigail, too, has brought a great life in my life. She is one of my best friends, one of the warmest people I know. She brings a great deal of love and music into my life. And I find this to be more effectual and alluring, knowing how important it has been to her family too.

Filomena’s Miraculous Medal

Filomena’s pendant photographed from the front.
Filomena’s pendant photographed from the back.
Filomena’s pendant (⅞ “ x 1 ⅛ “) photographed next to a quarter for scale.

The object I have decided to discuss is my great-grandmother’s medallion of the Virgin Mary. My great-grandmother, Filomena Pugliese has always been a beloved family figure. My mother told me countless stories about her paternal grandmother before I even got to see a photo of her for the first time. Though I don’t think either of the two photos I have of Filomena fully do her justice. The younger photo taken in 1926 shows her at 38 years old with her husband, Pietro Botte, and their seven children, technically eight as at the time she was pregnant with their son Daniel. This photo has become an heirloom in itself, depicting our Albanian-Italian family still partially in its beginnings in Brooklyn, NY. My beloved grandpa can be seen in the center, held by his father, this being one of the earliest photos we have of him. However, through this photo it was hard to know these people, to see past their strong expressions to who they are. That is where my mother’s help came in handy as she was able to let me in on the most endearing parts of Filomena Pugliese. 

Photograph of Filomena and her family taken in 1926.

The most fitting aspect I was able to learn about Filomena is that she had the utmost admiration for the Virgin Mary, even requesting to be buried in a blue dress just like the Madonna. This allows me to know a different meaning of her medallion. This was not just a random religious keepsake, it was HER Madonna that she would keep with her for the entirety of her adult life. It is debated whether it was given to her as a gift for her wedding in September of 1907 or if it was gifted to her by Pietro sometime in the decade following the wedding. Either way, it is known that this was a gift to her, and that the person who gave her the pendant was aware of her love of Mary. 

One can still see her hand on the pendant, clutched between thumb and pointer finger every time Filomena said her Hail Mary. The Mary’s features have been partially wiped away with these decades of rubbing, leaving a slightly smooth texture across her figure. Along the way three of the twenty-eight marcasite stones have become lost to time, perhaps lost to the grabbing of her children or grandchildren. The mother of pearl inlaid in the pendant still holds its smooth, lively shine, adding an ethereal feeling to the piece. When looking at the back of the pendant there is a hole where it looks like there might have once been a pin, so that the pendant may be worn on the clothes, which my mother recalls Filomena doing sometimes. However, the piece at the top shows that the pendant would actually go on to be worn exclusively as a necklace, though it is unclear when this switch actually happened. The chain it was once worn on has also been lost upon its passing from Filomena to my mother, Marie. 

This pendant and its worn appearance gives a glimpse into Filomena’s life and perhaps why she might have so heavily held on to her Mary. By the time she died in August of 1980 at the age of 92, she had buried her husband and six of her ten children. By the time she was 45, Filomena had already lost three of her children as well as her husband. Her twin daughters died in their first year of the Spanish flu in 1919. Her youngest son, Danny, tragically died in 1933 during a botched tonsillectomy. In 1928, Pietro Botte attempted to break up a street fight and had his own smoking pipe jammed into his left eye, dying of an infection days later as the family could not afford the hospital visit. Being left a widow with seven children during the Great Depression would have been unimaginably difficult for Filomena. She overcame so much hardship, yet the only traits my mother can connect to Filomena are her serenity, kindness, and warmth. Filomena’s devotion to her children was paid back to her later in life. Her daughter Catterina, Aunt Kitty, would forgo marriage to spend her life caring for her mother. My grandfather, Jimmy, had such a love for his mother that he stopped eating when he was 92, claiming he wanted to die at the same age as her. 

I am glad that the pendant now sits in my mother’s hands. As a widow herself raising three kids, I think her grandmother has become one of her sources of strength. Filomena has become such a representation of strength and endurance for my family. If anything, I think it might be fitting that the figure on her pendant has become featureless, as it now feels like a representative of Filomena rather than just being a pendant to the Virgin Mary. 

Photograph of Filomena at 91, taken in 1979.

Two Pins of Scrap Metal

Going into this assignment I was unsure about how easy this was going to be. On the one hand, I knew from the very beginning what I would choose: my great grandfather’s World War 1 medals. My family doesn’t keep anything in our house unless it’s practical for present use but these medals are the one exception to this pattern. These medals are all I really know about my great grandfather, as I never met him while he was alive, and yet they have been kept in my family for generations. On the other hand, all I have connected to these objects are the stories passed down from my father, which he learned either from his father or from my great grandfather himself. The medals themselves aren’t very unique for a soldier of the time, so it’s difficult to create an image of what this distant relative was like back when my father was learning stories from him at a young age. But while I can’t draw on uniquities from the objects to create this image, the story of my great grandfather fills in the emotional gap that these medals lack.

My great grandfather was named Karl Bohnaker. He was born in Stuttgart Germany in 1898 to a woman who’s name has been lost to time. All I know is that she was a mistress to a wealthy German aristocrat, and Karl grew up a poor child with no connections to his father. Because of this he joined the army at the start of World War 1, hoping to escape his impoverished life. My father said he spoke little about the war, only that he served on the western front. Knowing the horrid living conditions and tactics of war used on the western front it makes sense as to why Karl wouldn’t speak much of his experiences at war, especially to a child. Rumor has it that he had to walk from the trenches back to Stuttgart on foot after the war was over. What I do know is that at the end of his service Karl received two medals from the German military: a “wound badge” given as the German equivalent to the American “purple heart” and an “iron cross” pin that was given to all soldiers regardless of rank. 

This is an example of a German Wound Badge from WW1, similar to the one Karl received from his service. They were often painted black, silver or gold based on the rank of the number of wounds the soldier earned. Karl’s was painted black.

What I find interesting about these medals is that they are made up of brass and zinc due to the German military using all other metals for the war effort, and thus these metals feel light and fragile to hold. I find it interesting that this is the detail that my dad would always point out when telling the story. I rarely hear about who my great grandfather was as a person, but my father never forgets to tell me what his medals were made of. Perhaps it was because of the irony behind a poor boy going to war to make some money and start a life, when in the end he is rewarded with the leftover metal that his country wasn’t using for the war that he just fought in. 

This is an example of an Iron Cross Badge from WW1, similar to Karl’s Iron Cross Badge.

This irony would continue after the end of Karl’s service for the German army. After returning home after the war had ended, he experienced the hyperinflation of the post war German economy. This hyperinflation made it nearly impossible for Karl to make any money for himself, and prompted drastic action to survive in this post war era. In the early 1920s Karl immigrated to the United States, taking what little money he had left and his two medals. He supposedly came to New York through Ellis Island, however I can not find any proof of this. His plan was to make some money in th US’s booming economy, wait for the German economy to settle down and then move back to Germany to continue his life. However, due to the economic crash of the American stock market in 1929 and the rise to power of the Nazi party in the 30s, Karl decided to stay in America. Throughout the 30s and early 40s, Karl started a tool and die manufacturing business in Brooklyn. From there he made enough money to settle down and start a family for himself.

And from there the story becomes much more vague. After settling down in Brooklyn my great grandfather’s story became less specific, so much so that I hardly hear about what his life was like after 1940. But what I find interesting about it is just how ironic the story is. Karl, who came from a childhood with little to no money, was constantly working to make a living for himself and was always being beaten down by political and economic conditions that were much larger than he was. And yet Karl never stopped working, even after the first world war and two economic catastrophes he still worked to make the life he always wanted. What I find most interesting is that he kept his two war medals with him the entire time. Maybe he kept these medals out of national pride, as a way of remembering where he came from. Or rather they were to remind him of his victories of the past, like surviving the hell that was World War 1. I may never know why Karl kept these two pins of scrap metal, but I believe he would be proud of the legacy that he’s left behind and the stories that are told of him to this day.

Jeremiah Hunt, a Photo, a Forgotten Story

Despite growing up with an Irish mother and an Irish extended family, I know very little beyond the fact that we call Ballylongford, or Tullahennel South, our home. While I know some stories about Ireland, they are my mother’s and only reach as far back as the 1970s.

When I was assigned this project, I immediately thought of this photo. Printed on thick glossy paper and weathered by time, the photo weighs more than one might think – literally and metaphorically. The photo is covered by various splotches but the photo is still clear. A bunch of young men dressed in Irish Volunteer Army uniforms with some grinding mischievously at the cameraman.

Pictured: Ballylongford Volunteer Army. Jeremiah Hunt is in the top row and fourth from the right.


All I had to start off with with finding the history behind this photo was a name: Jeremiah Hunt. Jeremiah, also spelled Geremiah, was usually just called Ger. Beyond his name, I had nothing. I had no idea when and where he existed or what his life was like. Jeremiah Hunt, was born May 31st, 1897 under English rule to Patrick and Catherine (nee: Collins) Hunt in Tullahennel. Once I showed my mom a record of Ger, she immediately took a picture to send to her seven siblings on WhatsApp. This photo is perhaps the first solid connection my family has had to this man.

Ger grew up in southwestern Ireland. He attended school at least until the age of 13 and grew up without a father. There is no record of when Patrick Hunt died, his wife is simply labeled as a widow on the 1911 census. When the Irish War of Independence began in 1919, Ger immediately joined the Irish Volunteer Army of Ballylongford. Ger was only 23 when he joined the army, his brother heading off to America and never be heard from again.

Speaking with my Great Uncle Larry, one of Ger’s twelve children, I was told that my great-grandfather owned one of the only guns in his part of the IRA. In his captain’s, Brian O’Grady, witness statement he lists that the only weapons they had were two .32s revolvers and one shotgun. Ger owned one of the two .32s.

The years 1920-21 were some of the worst years my great-grandfather and his fellow neighbors were to endure. Within a period of six months, the Tans twice entered the village of Ballylongford where my great-grandfather was stationed. During this six month period, the Tans burned down houses and businesses, killed both Volunteers and civilians, as well as looting whatever they could put their hands on. These two events are called the “Burning of Ballylongford”.

It was during one of these events that Ger was shot in the chest by a Tan. While he survived, the gunshot wound he suffered ailed him for the rest of his life. My Great Uncle Larry recalls when they were picking turf for the winter, his father would take his shirt off and he had a giant hole in his chest. My great-grandfather didn’t talk about it so his children didn’t ask. It is unfortunate that my grandfather did not speak of what had happened to him. His story can only be told through the vague recollections of those who surrounded him.

After the war, Michael Collins, leader of the Volunteers and famous Irish revolutionary, signed a treaty with the British: 26 of the 32 counties would be free. The remaining six would remain with Britain. These six counties come to form what we consider Northern Ireland today. Perhaps Ger was anti-treaty and regretted his time under Collins. Or maybe he was ashamed of what the IRA became in the years before his death in the 1960s. There is no clear reasoning Ger hid his stories away from those closest to him.

This photo pictured is a copy of the original one that sits in the archives of County Kerry. My grandmother, Ger’s daughter, was the one who inherited the copy of her father. Perhaps it was because she was only one of twelve who remained in Tullahennel. The others moving away to America, England, and Australia. My grandmother, much like her father, did not tell what she knew of Ger’s story. Instead, she hid the picture in her wedding album. The hiding of the photo in an intimate place speaks of a pain close to the heart.

It was only in 2015 after my grandmother died that my mother found the photo in the album. Much like her mother before her, it was hidden away from view but not out of pain but of a detachment from the past. In 2021, the picture of my great-grandfather is no longer hidden from view. Ger never had a chance to tell his story but now, like the photo, I possess both and can tell his story for him.

Daisy Earrings

I have a pair of earrings. They are clip-on earrings since I do not have pierced ears. They have gold colored backs, and a bright yellow enamel circle with matching white enamel petals on the front. The daisies are about the size of a quarter. And the hinged mechanism on the back is the size of a fingernail.

I first found these earrings in my mom’s jewelry box. She had a collection of earrings, both clip-ons and regular ones, since her previously pierced ears had long since closed up. This was about three or four years ago, when my sister pierced her ears and asked my mom to borrow some old earrings. My mom keeps her jewelry in boxes at the back of a drawer. She likes to hold onto everything, and I found several old beaded bracelets and necklaces that I had made for her as a little kid. This led to an afternoon of the three of us digging through lots of old jewelry with varying degrees of value and patina.

My sister found the earrings she was looking for, but I also found the daisy earrings. I really like anything with flowers on it, so I was pretty excited about this. They were also clip-ons so I could wear them, despite not having pierced ears. My mom had not worn them in years, and was happy to see someone using them again, so she gave them to me.

I just assumed that they were bought by my mom, and she wore them for a while before they found a home deep within the jewelry box. However, I soon found out that this was not quite what happened. Once when I was wearing them she informed me that my aunt would be so happy to see someone wearing her earrings. I was not very surprised by this, since many of the sets of old clothes and jewelry came from my aunt. She was a fashion major at FIT, and my mom has a box of “dress up” clothes filled with all the bright and colorful things she sewed as a student there.  

Again, I assumed that was the end of the story; that she had bought them, and then later given them to my mother, but a few weeks ago I went to visit her, I happened to be wearing the earrings. When she first saw them, she did not remember them, but told me that she really liked my earrings. Then she realized that they were familiar, and asked me if they were the ones that she used to wear. I told her they were, and she said that she got them from my grandmother. Unfortunately she did not know where my grandma had gotten them, and there is nobody else who I can ask. She definitely remembered my grandma wearing them, and then giving them to her. Then my aunt passed them on to my mom.

While they do not have any identifying marks, I found a few Etsy shops that sold identical and similar pairs. However all of them identified them as merely “Retro Daisy Earrings”, and only one shop indicated them as being from the 1970s. Most of the shops also seemed to be reselling thrifted items, and did not actually know anything about the items themselves.

While I would like to believe that my grandmother had inherited them from a long chain of relatives, I believe that they are from the 70s, which means that she could not have had them for more than five or ten years before giving them to my aunt. Perhaps they were a gift from my grandfather, or her cousins in Connecticut. The exact origins of this object has been lost to time, but it is nice to know that so many women in my family share my fondness for flowers.

Alan Gartner: A Watch With A Story

My grandfather, Alan Gartner, was an amazing man and one of the most compassionate and caring people I have met. The details in my memories of him are vague and far between, but that does not take away from my admiration of him. His passing, after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease, when I was fourteen, devastated my entire family. The impact he had on people can be seen in each of his three children, as they hold him in extremely high regard. My mother and her extended family share countless stories of the mitzvot (a loosely translated Hebrew word for good deeds) that illustrate his prowess in the endeavors he took on. I feel I should point out that my family does not feel this way about many people. In fact, the opposite is true when it comes to folks that we feel do not encapsulate qualities Alan held.  

Alan and his second wife, Dorothy, gifted me the watch he wore throughout his adult life when I became a man in the eyes of the Jewish people. Many gifts are given to someone for his Bar mitzvah, most of which are checks and are forgotten about after the thank-you notes are written. The gorgeous, simple Movado watch was not one of the gifts that were quickly forgotten. I do not wear it often, but wherever I am living, the watch has come and will come, with me.  

All the information I have about the watch is known through oral history, as Alan is no longer alive, and my thirteen-year-old brain did not think to ask about the piece. Fortunately, this watch was prominent in my mother and Dorothy’s lives.  

The watch has a single gold dot where twelve o’clock typically is, an hour hand and a minute hand. The face has no markings other than the dot. The story goes that Alan could glance at his wristwatch and tell time to the minute every time, or so my mother says. Dorothy pointed out he may have been full of it as no one would question his reading, but I like to remember the story as my mother tells it.  

After talking to Dorothy, I was able to gather a bit of information about his relationship with the watch; but like my memories, hers are vague with some gaps. Dorothy recalls a story told to her by Alan in which he went about finding the watch. He loved museums and at the Museum of Modern art, he saw an exhibit where a watch designed by Nathan George Horwitt was displayed. The watch he saw was “The Museum Watch” which had a simple design (the same as the one I have) that he fell in love with. The design was stolen by Movado from Horwitt which was later settled in court. Alan saw the exhibit sometime after 1960; no one is quite sure when he actually bought the watch, but it must have been after 1960. After seeing the unique watch at MoMA, he decided to purchase the “Movado Museum Watch” as it is called. He later bought the exact same watch for Dorothy. She estimated he gifted it to her in the late 1990s but seemed fairly uncertain about the date. He loved the design so much that he wanted her to have the same one and be able to appreciate it as much as he did.   

Growing up, I have vivid memories of Alan wearing the watch. He wore it almost every day of his adult life. It went with him to his job as Director of Research, Office of the Mayor of the City of New York, where he worked closely with Michael Bloomberg. When he gifted it to me at my bar mitzvah, he took it straight off his wrist. The love he had for the watch made the gift far more valuable to me. I do not wear the watch often, but the object is safe for the amazing things it has been through with Alan. The stories I am aware of and the ones I am not aware of are held in the small face of the watch. Whether the hidden stories come to light is up in the air, but time will tell. In the meantime, I have the honor to have this watch that went everywhere with someone I admire immensely. 

Sources  

“Nathan George Horwitt.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Jan. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_George_Horwitt. 

Behind the Badge

As a college student pursuing graphic design here at SUNY New Paltz, I can share my pride over one of my grandfather’s designs, specifically the badge of the USS Intrepid. The Intrepid is an Essex-class aircraft carrier built for the United States Navy, used in World War II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War.

Growing up, I had always seen this badge design sitting on a shelf in my grandparents house. To my knowledge, it had become an ordinary decor piece. As a young girl, I was blatantly uninterested in learning about anything to do with the Navy, and so despite my grandfather’s attempts to explain his stories- they were not remembered. As I grew older, however, I became more interested in the story behind the badge. For the interest of this assignment, I had my grandfather tell his story to my father, who had taken notes to send to me.

The badge, designed by my grandfather

The badge itself is 4” wide, in near perfect condition. There are several badges floating around our family, this specific badge photographed is owned by my father in our home of Clinton, NY. Iron-on backing unused, without any loose threads. Preserved with care. So, how is this badge important to my family?

My grandfather, Norbert Blum, had joined the Navy on July 14th, 1952 at the age of 19. He had just recently graduated from high school in a small town south of Rochester, NY. He had always found a passion for art and design growing up, but was drafted to the Navy before any academic plans were pursued. He found himself on the Intrepid, working as a radarman during the Korean War. On the ship, there was a newspaper that was published once every month. The paper included news journals, cartoons, and entries by the sailors themselves. One day in 1955, the newspaper announced a contest for a sailor with a knack for design to create a logo for the ships crew; the best design would win the honors of reproduction. 

With previous interests in art, my grandfather took the opportunity to enter a design. He wanted a design that represented the two parts of the Intrepid; the ship, and the aircraft carrier. He divided the patch into two parts. On the left side of the patch states, “IN MARE”, which translated from Latin, means “on the sea”. On the right side states, “IN COELO”, which translates to “in the sky”. The left half design is a globe with latitude and longitude lines, signifying the sea. The right half design is blue with stars, signifying the sky. In the center, acting as the dividing line, is a compass needle. “USS INTREPID” curves at the top of the design, “CV-11” curves at the bottom. As my grandfather states, “CV-11 is Navy code for the Intrepid ship, us Navy guys would know”. 

He submitted the design, and soon later heard the Admiral Commanding Officer announce great news: his design won. 

As a material object, I think a logo design is particularly interesting to choose because it has great personal value to my family, yet, it is not a privately valued item. The aircraft carrier docked in the Hudson River in New York City has turned into a museum, The Intrepid Museum, where visitors come and go. Out for public display, my grandfather’s design is painted largely on the inside of the ship, and embellished on countless items in the gift shop. My grandfather had gotten an original copy of the patch before he left the navy, but the patch that my father owns today is bought from the gift shop when my father and grandfather visited the Intrepid Museum in 2010. When noting this specific badge’s chain of ownership, I can discuss the passing of the gift shop, to my grandfather, to my father, to me. However, I see a wider picture. The design is intended to be owned and shared by the public, including the tens of thousands of sailors that served. I believe the design’s ability to serve the public is what makes the object so great, what makes it valuable to our family.

Image from the Intrepid Museum, pictures my grandfather standing next to his design (2010)

It is important to note that for me personally, the badge is not of interest to me in content. In other families, this badge may serve as a reminder of the struggles and sacrifices of a family member in their service to our country. Others may have their own personal stories, memories, and feelings, that they attach to this badge. While I can acknowledge the service of my grandfather, the spark of excitement comes from the design and aesthetics of the badge. I am inspired by my grandfather and his pursuit and success in art and design. Proven by the badge, design is in the bloodline.

Written in the Stars

Sun and Moon cross stitch pieces hanging on the wall
Close up of Moon Piece
Close up of the Sun Piece
Picture of the Pattern Booklet

Ever since I was little I can remember staring at these Sun and Moon frames hanging above my mother’s headboard. I always adored them but it wasn’t until they were gifted to me in 2018, that I understood their full meaning.

My grandmother, Mimi, as we call her loves to craft and do handmade projects. Knitting, cross-stitch, embroidery, you name it, she can and will make it for you. Long before I was a thought, my Mimi made my mother these celestial cross stitch pieces as a Christmas gift in 1994. These pieces were made from a pattern booklet, The Definitive Book of Celestial Designs, made in the early ’90s. These pattern booklets were all the rage back then and Mimi to this day has saved every single pattern she has ever made, a whole cabinet full to be exact. These pieces are made with what is called four-point cross-stitch and are a simple stitch in the embroidery world. These elaborate Sun and Moon pieces were made stitch by stitch, and as Mimi claims only took her a few weeks to complete. These pieces were then framed in an 8 x 8 wooden square frame which allows it to be hung up as a wall decoration. My grandfather, a handyman and antique dealer, found these frames at the garage sale and repaired them to fit. It was almost serendipitous how it all came together in time for Christmas morning. 

My mother has always had these hanging up since that day no matter where she is in life. They followed her to the first college dorm at SUNY Purchase, then transferred right along with her to SUNY New Paltz of all places. When I came along in 2000, I can remember them always in her room above the headboard, on the side by the window, and even hanging on the back of the door. I always loved them and admired them from afar never questioning where they came from or even knowing that my Mimi had made them. It wasn’t until I was getting ready to move to my first college dorm here at SUNY New Paltz that my mother gave them to me to hang up and told me the story of how they came to be. Since that day in 2018, I have had them in both of my college dorms and now in my apartment, they hang above my bed. 

These celestial pieces have become a sort of family heirloom and something I treasure dearly, but the meaning goes beyond just that. My Mother loves anything celestial and she has in more ways than one passed that love down to me. Both my mother and I were born on a full moon, and we are both Pisces. For us, this love of the celestial beings goes way beyond just being about the sun and moon, but rather is more about our connection, our love, and how in a way it was written in the stars. 

The Vedovato bros Tile

Repurposed kitchen backsplash from the 1900s

The object I decided to discuss today is a tile that was given to my family before the backsplash in our kitchen was installed. While this item is random to a stranger, it holds the majority of my maternal family history. This tile was one of the original tiles from the Vedovato bros first U.S. storefront, and was saved over the years and later repurposed for our kitchen. Now, tile for kitchen backsplashes didn’t become popular until the 1950s, and the original storefront started the production of them around then as well. This specific tile has been dated back to around the 50s and was ground down and remade into a more modern design. This is not what the original tile would’ve looked like, but it contains the remnants from the previous one (my mom hated the look of the original tile but she wanted the sentimentality of it so she had it repurpose).

    The story of the tile starts in the late 1800s when the four Vedovato brothers, William, Vincent, Joe, and Erminio, learned the art of tile, marble, terrazzo, and mosaic in a trade school in Italy. By the time the brothers had finished their education Italy’s economics were crumbling, which led them to move to Germany. In Aachen, Germany the first Vedovato Tile shop was created. The business was going well for the brothers and a few years later Vincent and William took a trip to New York City, where they realized there was an extreme lack of tile and construction was on the rise. After heading back to Germany, (as history goes) there was a long conversation between the four brothers, specifically about the turmoil they sensed boiling within the German government. This leads the brothers to their third move, where they traveled from Germany to America, specifically New York City. 

    Upon arriving in the city the brothers bought a storefront at the end of 116th street right next to the East River. This location was prime for them due to the fact that tile shipments were easily conveyed to their storefront. With the new move to a different country, they also changed the name of their shop. In 1910, Acme Tile and Marble became the Vedovato bros and was primarily being run by Joe and Ermino. 

    Once again business was going extraordinarily well, but three major events changed the course for these brothers. The first and second events occurred in tandem with WWI in 1914 and the Spanish Influenza in 1918.  While both the war and the flu put a strain on their business financially the biggest loss was the death of their brother Vincent who succumbed to the influenza. However, after his death, the roaring 20s picked up in full swing, and apartments were being built faster than they could produce the tile. In the mid-1920s William had decided to leave the business and headed back to Italy to help my great-great-great-great-grandparents on their family farm. From there Ermino ended up buying out Joe’s share of the business, where Joe then started his own business as a “contractor” (we use that in my family as code for the mafia, but the majority of the family mentioned in this was involved with the mafia in one form or another). My great-grandfather Leon then joined the family business and worked along with his father. 

    The third major hit for this business was a combination of the stock market crash, the great depression, and finally WWII. When WWII hit the Vedovato bros shifted their company from tiles to a machine shop where they manufactured nuts and bolts to help aid in the war. Once again though luck struck my family and they were able to reopen the tile business and began importing tile from Japan. The shift from Acme tile imports to the Japanese came from the U.S. government taking over Japan’s rebuilding where they began focusing heavily on the tile industry. 

As the years went on more of my family began to join the business and more storefronts and storage warehouses were created in the Vedovato name. My grandpa ended up joining the business after his father ( Leon) had passed and began to run the company alongside my nana Lena and her brothers. The business did begin to slow down until 1968 when my nana Lena decided to open up one of the first tile showrooms in New York.

This new way of visualizing tile allowed for the business to pick up once again, and be passed down into more generations. The business has since passed down to the fourth generation of Vedovatos and was the origin of one of the tiles in our kitchen backsplash!