Milton Cantor hoped to write a book someday based on the letters he sent home to his wife while he was serving as a U.S. Army doctor during World War II. The correspondence describes his wartime experiences in Britain, France, Germany and Czechoslovakia, as well as at several Army bases in the United States.
He never did get around to writing that book. After the war, he devoted himself to his medical practice and his family, which grew to include four daughters. He continued to practice medicine until his death at age 74.
This year, Cantor’s oldest daughter, Laura Cantor Zelman, fulfilled her father’s dream by writing and publishing “In My Father’s Words: The World War II Letters of an Army Doctor,” which draws from more than 500 letters he wrote to his wife, Rose, between 1941 and 1945.
Zelman and her sisters discovered the bags of letters in a closet after their mother died in 1990. She took them home and stored them until 2014, when she began to read and sort through them.
She found that, in a letter dated Jan. 7, 1942, Cantor had asked his wife to keep the letters and treat them with care, because he hoped “to complete a book (in diary form) about my experiences.”
Zelman, 75, of Sterling, spent the next two years on a “labor of love.” She pulled excerpts from the letters — which she described as “a time capsule of his Army service years” — and compiled them into her book, which she self-published.
On Wednesday, in a program marking the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Zelman talked about her book to a group of residents at Ashby Ponds, a senior citizens community in Ashburn. She highlighted several themes in the letters: patriotism, medicine, the Nazis and her father’s thoughts about life.
Milton Cantor was “an unabashed patriot,” she said. “He believed that he was part of something greater than himself, doing his part to free the world from Nazi tyranny.”
He also wryly acknowledged the sacrifices made by his wife, who was raising their daughter alone.
“I have often remarked that I have given the best years of my wife to the Army,” he wrote.
Cantor provided care in a mobile evacuation hospital in Europe, where he treated and stabilized wounded soldiers until they could be evacuated. His unit also treated German prisoners of war with the same care they gave U.S. soldiers, even giving them the new “wonder drug,” penicillin, to treat infection, Zelman said.
“It’s rather ironical, when only a few hours ago, Americans and Germans were killing each other, and then lie side by side in our ambulances and wards,” Cantor wrote.
Cantor, who was fluent in German, was occasionally called upon to interrogate German prisoners, even as he treated them. Some described atrocities the Nazis had committed.
Zelman said she often wondered how her father, who was Jewish, had been able to put aside his hatred of the Nazis and give the German soldiers the medical care they needed.
In the letters, Cantor described the harsh conditions his unit faced — setting up, tearing down and moving the evacuation hospital in the cold, rain and mud amid the perils of war. Zelman said she concluded that several factors helped him survive the war: camaraderie, humor, his Jewish faith community, food packages from home and his conviction that the war would soon be over.
“My father was a hero to me, but he would not have viewed himself as such,” Zelman said, adding that he thought of himself as an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary war. “Maybe heroes are those who quietly go about doing their best under difficult circumstances.”
She concluded her presentation with a quote from an October 1944 letter: “A new day is dawning,” Cantor wrote. “It may perhaps not appear too near, yet it surely is not far off. When that day will break, it will find us hand in hand, facing people proudly. When we’ll look into the free and happy faces of children, we’ll think: our sacrifices were worth all this.”
“His four daughters were his pride and joy,” Zelman said. “He would probably say that his proudest achievement was that he played a small part in helping to make a better world for them.”