Wartime love letters returned to U.S. family thanks to Ontario woman’s discovery

When Morris and Betty Starkman were newlyweds in 1953, they were about to start their lives together in Detroit, when Morris Starkman, a doctor, was instead sent to Korea to fight in a painful war as a captain with the U.S. Medical Corps. 

Throughout that time, he wrote letters to his new wife and other family members.

Somehow, over the years, those letters, plus letters written back to him, became separated from the family, ending up in a tin box underneath a bunch of old magazines in a basement in Kingsville, Ont.

Angela Thompson had bought the box nearly eight years ago through an online auction in Chatham, Ont., for artwork, and just about forgot about it until nearly a month ago. She started sifting through it and discovered the 38 hidden letters, many of them addressed to Betty Starkman in Detroit.

Angela Thompson was stunned when she stumbled upon the old letters written between Morris Starkman and his wife, Betty Starkman, in 1953. (CBC)

She quickly realized the historical and personal importance of the letters.

“These letters don’t belong to me,” she said, knowing immediately that she wanted to get them back into the hands of family. 

She said that though she opened some of the letters just to get some more information about who they were, she quickly stopped herself from reading any further. 

“When I realized that they were war letters, I was like, ‘No.’ Because I know from my grandparents, like, you don’t read that. It’s very personal,” she said.

‘Remarkable that they were found’

Before long, Thompson found information online about the late Morris and Betty Starkman. Their obituaries led her to family members who she was able to contact through social media. 

This image of the Starkmans was published in the Detroit Jewish News in 1991. (Detroit Jewish News)

It was their granddaughter, Meredith Starkman, in Brooklyn, N.Y., who was the first to respond, with excitement and disbelief. 

“We were, like, so over the moon,” she said.

Her father, Rob Starkman, was wary at first, before letting the gratitude wash over him as well. 

“It was remarkable that they were found after all these years,” said Starkman, Morris and Betty’s son, who now lives in Florida. 

Rob remembers his parents as “wonderful, genuine people.”

Morris Starkman was born in Toronto and went to medical school at the University of Toronto. In the late ’40s, his family relocated to Detroit, and that’s where he eventually met Betty.

They were married on Christmas Day in 1952, honeymooned in San Francisco, and then shortly thereafter, Morris went to war on the front lines, not seeing his wife again for another two years.

Letters, a portal to memories of the war

“He had a lot of PTSD as a result of the war,” Rob recalled.

“My father was in a war zone where there’s a tremendous amount of death. He saw horrible, horrible things.” 

Thompson carefully packaged the letters and mailed them to Brooklyn, N.Y., to Morris and Betty’s granddaughter, Meredith. (Submitted by Angela Thompson)

Rob remembers the letters from when he was a child. He recalls stumbling upon them accidentally when he was around eight or nine years old. When his father discovered him, he became extremely “incensed.”

“I was looking at the letters,” Rob said. 

“I didn’t read them, I didn’t open any of them. And he said, ‘Those are private between your mom and me and I don’t want you reading them. They’re not for you, they’re not for Susan, (my sister), they’re just between mom and me.'”

That memory has stuck with him over the years, and it’s a big part of why now, decades later, he’s choosing to keep that promise. He won’t be reading those letters.

“They were very private people and these letters were very private. My father made that very clear,” he said. 

“Eventually I would like the original letters to be buried with me since I’m going to be buried with my parents.”

Memories of Morris and Betty

In the meantime, he supports his daughter’s choice to read through the letters herself, understanding that it’s a chance for her to learn more about her grandfather, whom she is named after. Morris died suddenly in 1993 before Meredith was born. Rob said the loss of her husband took a great toll on his mother for years. She died in 2016. 

The letters were found in a tin box. Rob Starkman recalls finding the letters when he was a child and was told by his father at the time that they were private. (Submitted by Angela Thompson)

Thompson carefully mailed the letters to Meredith, and she’s now sorting through them with a type of special care inherited from her grandmother, who was a genealogist. Betty Starkman founded the Jewish Genealogical Society in Michigan in 1985.

“That’s again why this is, like, the craziest story,” Meredith said. 

“My grandmother’s life was dedicated to this kind of thing, literally looking at family lineage…. So finding these has been really like a full-circle situation.”

She said reading through some of the exchanges between her grandparents has been “phenomenal.”

“They were very in love,” she said.

“It’s tragic they were separated for as long as they were right after their wedding, but like, it’s so clear from these letters how much they cared about each other.”

Letters ‘back where they belong’

Rob remembers witnessing that care as a young boy.

“They went dancing every Saturday night, and because they were apart for so long, there was never a time when they were together, whether it was a newspaper, sitting on the couch together, where they didn’t touch. They were that connected all the time,” he said.

As for how the letters ended up in Canada in the first place, Rob isn’t sure. But he assumes it happened when the family had to sell his mother’s home when she moved into assisted living in 2013. A number of items from the house were sold off at the time.

Now, years later, Rob is happy the letters are “back where they belong.”

“I would really, really, really like to thank Angela for reaching out to all of us,” he said. 

“So many people would look at these and just … toss them in the garbage or whatever, and she was kind enough to reach out to our family.”

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