Old photographs preserved in a kind of time capsule – a wallet lost 70 years ago in an Austrian farmhouse during World War II – recently provided a central San Joaquin Valley family with their first glimpse of the young faces of many loved ones.
The wallet was returned to 91-year-old Eligio Ramos of Madera last month.
Inside the wallet were more than 25 photos of his family – images that kept him company during four bloody years of war, including the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, and the liberation of prisoners in German concentration camps as he fought alongside comrades in the 250th Field Artillery Battalion.
The wallet’s discovery and return unites two men worlds apart: a veteran and retired ditch irrigator from Madera and an Austrian ophthalmologist.
Josef Ruckhofer found the wallet wedged behind some wooden planks in a wall while working on his family’s farmhouse in Salzburg, Austria, in June. His uncle told him the wallet had likely been there since 1945, when the family allowed some U.S. Army soldiers to lodge at the farmhouse for a night. (They recall the soldiers as “very friendly.”)
It is like a time capsule.
Rosando Ramos of his father’s wallet
Seeing a birth date on a military identification card inside the wallet, Ruckhofer learned Ramos would be 91 if he was still alive.
“Thinking what a big surprise for this man it must be to get his wallet back after 70 years, I started searching for him on the Internet,” Ruckhofer told The Bee in an email.
He found many people named Eligio Ramos in Harlingen, Texas, where Ramos grew up. He sent an email to one but didn’t receive a reply. He expanded his search and found an obituary for Ramos’ wife, Concha, who died in January. It listed her survivors and that helped Ruckhofer find an address for the Madera man.
Ruckhofer wrote Ramos a letter, asking if he found “the right man.”
Sylvia Gonzalez, Ramos’ daughter, thought it was junk mail when she opened the letter June 18 while eating breakfast with her dad at his Madera home.
Once she saw the attached photocopies of some photos inside the wallet, her suspicion vanished.
It’s holding history in your hands.
One of the photos was a picture of a soldier, who she thought was her dad, smiling beside an unknown woman. After assuring her father it was OK to say who the lady was, Gonzalez learned the photo was actually of her uncle.
The Ramos family didn’t have copies of these photographs.
The Ramoses first shared their news with ABC30. When ABC30 aired the story last week, Gonzalez’s cousin in Firebaugh began to cry after a photo of her mom as a young woman, who has since died, flashed across her television.
Of seeing many family members as young people for the first time, Gonzalez says, “it’s something.”
Seeing those young faces again is something to Eligio Ramos, too.
It couldn’t have happened to a better person.
Surrounded by three sons and Gonzalez at his Madera home this week, Ramos says his family “makes me happy.”
It was a “funny feeling” to get the wallet back after being lost for so long, but it sure makes him feel good.
During WWII, he sent the little money he earned as a soldier back home to help support seven siblings, seven half-siblings, his mother and father, who worked in the fields as a laborer. (There was no money in the wallet.)
As they worked to put food on the table, he dodged bullets and bombs far from home.
“The worst I seen was when we were landing in France,” Ramos recalls of the war. “All the guys were in a boat and trying to get to shore but the Germans were shooting them down, killing them like rabbits. We were lucky.”
He remembers crawling, crawling, crawling along a bloody beach. He was just a teenager then.
Sometimes, when he’d look at the photos of his family, he’d imagine his mom cooking his favorite food, pinto beans, in a peaceful world across the ocean.
A lot of guys were killed before they got off the boat.
Ruckhofer is grateful he was able to find Ramos to return his photos and wallet.
“My family, we felt very lucky to have had this opportunity to bring him back his memories and how happy everybody is about this ‘present.’”
On Tuesday, Ruckhofer received a touching email from a Vietnam War veteran, thanking him for what he did. The veteran says he “knows how much photos of relatives mean to a soldier.”
Ramos’ children agree.
“It’s priceless, just priceless – just the story itself,” son Richard Ramos says.
Also priceless, he says: that a wallet could bring so many members of his family together again.
Son Rosando Ramos says he can’t fully express his gratitude to Ruckhofer in words.
“If he was here, I’d give him a big ol’ hug. A big ol’ hug.”