In 1924, a girl named Grete Zimmer was born to a Jewish family in Wiener Neustadt, Austria. In 1939, Austria was under Nazi rule so Grete and her younger sisters left the country for America.
Once here, they played a name game. Sister Josefin became Josephine and Grete and sister Bella swapped the last letters of their names with each other; Grete became Greta and Bella became Belle. Sister Lily, who emigrated to Palestine, took the name Tirza. She remained in Israel and fought in the 1948 War of Independence. Their parents, Max and Ida, were unable to escape Europe and died in concentration camps.
Why is this of interest to us? Because Grete, or Greta, may be one of the most famous people you’ve never heard of. To wit…
August 14 and 15, and September 2, 1945, were the dates of the three stages of Japanese surrender to the Allies, marking the end of World War II, V-J Day or Victory Over Japan Day.
A great hoopla ensued throughout the land. One exuberant and extemporaneous event in particular occurred in Times Square in New York, and it was documented in a famous photograph taken by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. No doubt, you’ve seen it.
This impulsive embrace captured the giddiness of the hour and of this historic event. A uniformed sailor is dipping and kissing a nurse. What great fun!
Now the real story begins. We must remark that the sailor and the nurse did not know each other; they had never met.
Also, another photographer, Victor Jorgensen, took a photo from a similar angle that offered almost the exact same rendering.
Here we are, Lisa and me, in the Mallory Square area of Key West, in front of the Custom House Museum across from the Mel Fisher Museum, staring up at a 25-foot tall, 15 000-pound sculpture. Assembled by Seward Johnson, he calls it Embracing Peace and it is possibly the largest kiss on record. It is a three-dimensional rendering of that famous photograph.
Let’s look at some details and a bit of the situation that led to this famed osculation. This nurse who is begin kissed by the exuberant sailor is none other than Greta, née Grete, Zimmer. However, Ms Zimmer was not a nurse; she was a dental assistant who everyone assumed was a nurse because of her white uniform. On August 14, she left work early, as did everyone else, and was celebrating with the throngs in Times Square. Out of nowhere, the sailor grabbed her and planted a big one.
“It wasn’t my choice to be kissed,” she later said. “The guy just came over and grabbed…. I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it I was in this tight grip…. I’m not sure about the kiss. It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.”
And what about this sailor? Who was he?
At least eleven men have made the claim to his identity. Our best sources tell us that his name was George Mendonsa. Although it may have been Glenn McDuffie, or possibly Carl Muscarello. The evidence, gathered from other photos, astronomical analysis, forensic pathologists and from claimants themselves, is conflicting. The kiss may have occurred at about two in the afternoon, or possibly early in the evening.
Glenn McDuffie says he was changing trains in New York when he heard that the war was over. This meant that his brother would be released from a Japanese prison camp.
“I was so happy,” he later said, “I ran out in the street. And then I saw that nurse. She saw me hollering and with a big smile on my face. I just went right to her and kissed her.
“We never spoke a word,” he said. “Afterward, I just went on the subway across the street and went to Brooklyn.” To visit his current girlfriend.
Then there was Edith Shain, who really was a nurse. In an embarrassing exploitive interview some years later, the guy with the microphone said to Ms Shain, “You remember doing some kissing in Times Square that day.”
Edith replied, “You better believe it. That was the day to kiss people.” Good attitude, eh? Edith, at the time of the interview was 89 years old and utterly charming. Although some accused her of being a fraud.
Whoever they were, the re-creation of that kiss, whether photograph or sculpture, is an enduring symbol of the elation felt by a nation at the end of a dreadful war.
One more thing. We live in the 21st century. We live in the age where sexual assault is in the news every day. Our sensibilities have never been so raw-edged. Some modern folks make a case for tearing down this iconic symbol of national joy and unity, based on the “forced nature” of this kiss. Grete said, “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed…. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”
I believe that forcing oneself on another, especially with the lips or other parts of the anatomy, is fraught with disrespect, misogyny, dominance and dishonor.
In 2012, a writer argued that the picture depicted not a moment of romance, but a “sexual assault by modern standards.”
In a 2014 article, a magazine noted that “many people view the photo as little more than the documentation of a very public sexual assault, and not something to be celebrated.”
Maybe, but I say times have changed. What about the romance of a stolen kiss, the titillating brush on the shoulder, the jubilant spontaneity of a surprise buss with a stranger? Can we preserve the clumsy advances of an honorable person awkwardly in love for the first time?
My tendency on this V-J rendering is to give the sailor a break. Okay, yes, he was on his way to see his girlfriend, but he was elated, ecstatic, gleefully celebrating the monumental turn of world events.
Let’s be respectful, but let’s not kill romance.
Also, hark the words of sculptor Seward Johnson when in 2012 he said, “It’s been long enough since the second World War. I call it the ‘Embrace of Peace.’” He then added, with a laugh, “I cautioned them to spell ‘peace’ the right way.”
One last thing, but you’ve got to accept that the two people who share this historic kiss were Grete Zimmer and George Mendonsa. After extensive research, Life Magazine found the two and brought them together, once again, in Times Square, with the intention of a reenactment. They are both dead now, but in their lifetimes, they kept in touch, Christmas cards and such.
The reenactment? Both said “No thanks.”