Pen pals for 66 years: The story of an unusual friendship
In 1947 when she first began corresponding with a young man in Germany, Helen Fortney, of East Jordan, received this photo. It shows Hamburg, where the young man lived, ravaged by World War II. The two, now in their 80s, have been life-long pen pals and continue to write to one another. (COURTESY PHOTO / April 26, 2013)
She was 16. Kurt Maybaum, then 20, wrote back and the two began to send letters to one another striking up an unusual friendship.
Sixty-six years later Fortney and Maybaum, both in their 80s, continue to write. Fortney now lives at Grandvue Medical Care Facility in East Jordan and remembers fondly the time she spent as a teenager in southern Michigan writing to her friend, learning about his life experiences and sharing her own.
The two were connected through an international youth program meant to promote world peace through correspondence.
"It was a delightful experience because I had never been to Germany," said Fortney. "He would send a lot of pictures and he was very proud of his heritage."
She learned that Maybaum was once a member of the German Youth Movement and was a soldier during World War II. He picked up English when he spent time as a prisoner of war in Britain. After returning home, Maybaum discovered his neighborhood in Hamburg had nearly been destroyed by Allied forces.
When they first began to write, the pen pals shared stories of what they did day-to-day. Maybaum told Fortney about how he and his friends traveled on the weekends.
"His friends would go away for the weekend and I wrote back. I remember, oh, we could never do that. My parents wouldn't let me go away," she said.
Their letters were fairly simple at first, she said. They were young and didn't have much going on. But, their correspondence gradually became more in depth. At times there was a few months in between letters, sometimes only a few weeks.
Both married and Fortney had three children.
Finally, in 1970, after 23 years of writing to one another, Fortney traveled to Amsterdam and the two met for the first time. She remembers the noise of the city and the extensive walking she and her husband did while sightseeing there.
Fortney's husband, Matt, served in the U.S. Army in World War II and the two men shared stories from the war. They were similar stories, but from very different perspectives.
"They started talking about their experience in the war. It was very moving," she said. "If they had met before they would have had to kill each other." But, in the 70s, 80s and 90s when the Fortneys visited Germany several times and the Maybaums visited the United States, the two men got along very well, sharing similar interests and a passion for beer.
In 1989, Hamburg Harbor celebrated its 800th anniversary and Maybaum was presented with a prize from the mayor of the city. Fortney points to a photo on her wall and remembers how she shared cocktails with the mayor of Hamburg during the celebration and then was taken on a boat tour around the harbor.
"It was very exciting," she said.
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