Winnipegger tries to solve mystery of wartime postcards by finding family

A Winnipeg woman has a collection of old postcards sent between members of a family in Belgium. She wants to get them to a descendant, but first needs to find someone to translate the words into English.

'It's time for the family to read messages from 100 years ago'

Do you know who belongs to these postcards? Laurel Martin wants to find you! (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Laurel Martin is holding a mystery in her hands.

She is trying to find out how Luce is connected to Robert, what happened to Jeanine — and whom a stack of century-old postcards belong to.

"The postcards are not from my family. They are not addressed to my family, they do not share family names, so as far as I can tell, there's no real connection."

This is what she knows:

Martin's grandfather, Sgt. William Frey, was a Canadian soldier stationed in Antwerp, Belgium, during the Second World War.

He worked in a mail room. 

Many of the postcards are missing the postmark (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

When Frey came home to Saskatchewan after the war, he had a collection of about 50 postcards, all linked to people from Belgium whom Martin had never heard of — the Van de Vyvere family.

It was never clear why.

"It's a subject that was never brought up."

A Winnipeg woman has a collection of old postcards sent between members of a family in Belgium. She want to get them to a descendant, but first needs to find someone to translate the words into English. 4:19

Growing up looking at the pictures, Martin never thought too much about them.

The postcards were handed down to her after her grandparents passed away.

Over time, some of the postcards with the more famous images, like the Eiffel Tower, got her thinking.

Laurel Martin's grandfather, Sgt. William Frey, returned from the Second World War with a stack of postcards. (Submitted by Laurel Martin)

Who went to these exotic spots?

Who wrote these aged messages? 

Who are these families who spent the years between the world wars writing to each other?

Martin says it's time to solve the mystery and get the postcard collection into the hands of its rightful owner.

"I don't feel they're my postcards. I hope that I can get the postcards to somebody in the family, because they're far more meaningful, I assume, to the family than they are to me, even though I kind of feel like I know the family a little bit."

'I started to do some digging online and found a family tree and a family line that the postcards were from,' says Laurel Martin. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Here's where things get challenging. 

The postcards were not written in English, so it's difficult for Martin to decipher the handwriting.

"For the longest time I thought they were in French, but my French is not good. And then when I showed them to people in my circle of friends and acquaintances, people who spoke French as well as people from Quebec who spoke French and people from France who spoke French said these are not in French."

It was only when Martin ran into a graduate student from the Netherlands that she learned the truth. The postcards were actually written in three languages — French, Dutch and Welsh.

Laurel Martin, left, talks Shannah-Lee Vidal through the postcard connections she's made. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Once one mystery was solved, another presented itself. She wanted to know more about the personal lives of the people behind these postcards: the Van de Vyvere family.

"I wanted to know what the story of the family was, so I looked at the words a little bit more. I looked at the addresses and the people they were addressed to and from. I started to do some digging online and found a family tree and a family line that the postcards were from."

Laurel Martin created her own Van de Vyvere family tree. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

But it all appears to end with Jeanine, the Van de Vyveres' daughter (she thinks).

Jeanine was born in 1925. She lived at an address in Antwerp (though that home no longer exists).

She may have married. She may have had children.

Or not.

She may even, at age 95, still be alive.

Laurel Martin's favourite postcard features the Eiffel Tower. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

There's a complication, though; some vital information is missing due to a popular hobby.

"Both me and one of my other sisters were collecting stamps, and somewhere, I don't remember me doing it, a number of the stamps were lifted from the postcards. And when the stamps are taken, very often the date is taken as well."

The oldest postcards with a visible date say 1919. The correspondence appears to continue through the 1930s.

Luce wrote many of the postcards in the collection (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Here's how you can help.

Martin wants to find Jeanine — one family member whom may still be alive — or her descendants.

Have any tips? You can reach out to her through Instagram, Blogspot, or email.

It's time, Martin says, to reunite the family with some long lost mementoes.

"My mom looked at the pretty postcards. I've looked at the pretty postcards. My nieces and nephews have looked at the pretty postcards," Martin said.

"Now I think it's time for the family — the real family — to look at the pretty postcards and read messages from family from 100 years ago."

Laurel Martin has been mulling over her postcard mystery since she was a teen, so when CBC Manitoba created a form for our audience to "Pitch a Story,"  she asked to share it.

If you have your own story to share, just go to our Pitch a Story form and tell us all about it.


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