Transcript: WWII Artifact with Leslie Przybylek [VIDEO]


Leslie Przybylek, Curator of History, Heinz History Center:

You know, I have to admit that asking me as a curator about my favorite artifact is a little tricky. I spent so much time with a lot of this stuff and they all have stories to me that it’s kind of like picking your favorite child. But there are some pieces that I really, really like and maybe because they’re not large, dramatic pieces, they’re smaller objects that might be a little bit easy to overlook but they have wonderful stories with them.

And one of them is here in one of the large Homefront cases and that’s the stuffed, plush rabbit. I’ll just call it Theresa’s rabbit. It’s a piece that if you take a close look at it, I mean, it’s clearly well-loved, the head’s a little loose, and it’s a little dirty, and there are some holes in it, but it was a toy rabbit. We do have some photos, we can show you a photo of Theresa and you can see the rabbit in the stroller with her and her mother and her grandmother are in the shot.

Theresa was a little girl from Washington, Pa. The rabbit was sent to her by her uncle Clarence who was serving overseas in World War II. One of the things I really like about the rabbit in a simple sense is it documents the gifts that so many other thousands of servicemen sent from overseas and the way that Americans on both sides of both oceans, the Pacific and Atlantic, tried throughout the course of the war to maintain connections with loved ones as best they could.

I’ll say that one of the other things I love about the rabbit as an artifact is that it’s this great example of how sometimes what a piece doesn’t show also speaks about the larger story. The rabbit was sent to Theresa by her uncle Clarence – Clarence Brehl – who was serving with the 45th infantry, combat infantry. They’re also known as the Thunderbirds. And the 45th served throughout most of the war from ’43 onwards. They participated in the invasions of Sicily and Monte Cassino. They came up through France. They were part of the push into Germany. We don’t know where Clarence got the rabbit. The family history is that it was from France and maybe he got it while on leave. He might have also gotten it somewhere like Munich. The 45th took Munich and was partially stationed there at the end of the war to keep that within our hands until other forces could take over.

The 45th also was one of two main units that helped liberate the concentration camp at Dachau. Clarence did say that he was at Dachau, and if you know anything about the 45th’s record there, what they encountered was horrific. Boxcars full of bodies. A crematorium that had almost just been shut off. Some of the other artifacts that were donated along with the rabbit to our collection are small Nazi artifacts.

And so Clarence’s gift to Theresa is part of a much larger story of his involvement in the war. To me, I look at that rabbit and, I’m sure that Theresa it’s clear that it was a much-loved and very cute toy. I sometimes wonder what Clarence saw when he looked at that rabbit. He didn’t talk much to the family, at least we don’t know if he talked about it extensively, and it’s also just the symbol of everything that servicemen couldn’t share when they came back. The story of the 45th and what someone like Clarence had seen, it’s all so symbolized in the innocence of that rabbit, the gift to a family, and the things that servicemen simply could only share with the other men who they had served with.