It came through an online message board from a village in eastern France. Attached was a photo of a standard-issue
WILLIAM A. KADAR.
"I can't believe this," Arleen Haas, 33, recalled thinking as she looked at the photo again and again. Kadar, her grandfather, had fought in eastern France during World War II, winning a Purple Heart and enduring a string of POW camps in the closing months of the war.
Haas has spent much of her life collecting and preserving memories for her grandfather, now 93, who she says has given her so much. She saw the duffel as one more way to help Kadar stop time — if only for a moment. His ability to remember has been fading, much like those block letters.
"This duffel bag might just spark something," she remembers thinking. "It would just blow his mind."
Several years ago, Kadar agreed to talk about the war as part of a documentary project. The former tech sergeant, wisps of white hair showing, seemed to enjoy telling the old stories. But that wasn't always so.
"The whole time we were growing up, we were told he didn't want to talk about it," said Lynn Sattler, Haas' mother and eldest of Kadar's five children.
Still, reminders filled Kadar's basement in Merrillville, Ind., where large and colorful medals covered the walls. There was also a small sheathed sword bearing a swastika squirreled away in a cabinet.
"In fourth or fifth grade, I remember being kind of fascinated that he was in the military," Haas said. "When you're a kid, you see a military medal and you are like, 'That was the coolest thing.'"
Kadar was with the 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, in France in October 1944. He described how he and his fellow soldiers helped free the French town of Bruyeres from Nazi occupation. Some nights, sleep never came. The fighting "was day and night," he said.
His wartime combat led to his Purple Heart. Then he spent several months in German POW camps, where prisoners were shot, food was scarce and there was no heat.
"Our food, gee," Kadar said. With soup, "you wondered what was in it. Potato soup, you were lucky if you got a piece of potato."
When liberation came in late April 1945, he figured he had lost 100 pounds.
Those stories enthralled Haas. "It's like being a superhero," she said.
When Haas turned 18, she signed up for the Army Reserve without telling her parents.
Stationed in Germany in 2004, she decided to retrace Kadar's wartime journey. She snapped pictures along the way, of the small French towns he traveled through, of the countryside, of the former prison camps.
That journey complete, Haas picked up a book with a black leather cover and filled its bare white sheets with her grandpa's stories. She tucked the photos inside and sent him the memento, postmarked from Germany.
Memories returned, and Kadar thanked his granddaughter. As time went on, he turned to the book to retrieve moments that had temporarily vanished with age.
Once Haas returned to the U.S., she set out to find a man her grandfather had often talked about, the one who had helped him check for mines along a bridge in France to prepare the way for Allied tanks. The one Kadar called the best soldier there was.
"My grandfather is William KADAR," she wrote in summer 2008 on an online forum for the Texas Military Forces Museum. "He is still alive and well and I am trying to find anyone who knew him from the war. He is especially interested in finding Jesus FLORES."
She eventually tracked down Flores' sister, but it was too late. Flores had died.
"I remember when she told me that, I cried," said Haas, a former Army captain. She put an update on the message board. Someone replied, offered condolences. Then the thread went silent.
In June of last year, Haas was in the car when a message came through on the long-forgotten thread.
"Not a lot of time to be currently with you," the message read, "but a young cousin (16) recently found a very nice bag that William will sure be very happy to see."
The writer, a Frenchman named Hervé, had been working with the Texas Military Forces Museum to return World War II memorabilia to Americans. Hervé told Haas that his cousin, Charles, had found William's bag at his grandfather's house in Rehaupal, France — near Bruyeres.
Below Hervé's message was the photo that would soon consume Haas. She showed her husband.
"We were both in shock," Haas said.
She wrote back: "It is with tears of joy that I answer this post. What an incredible find! ... How shall I get this bag?"
After many months of back and forth, the bag Kadar left behind nearly 70 years earlier arrived.
In January, Kadar smiled as Haas helped him untie the burgundy-colored ribbon and unfurl the surprise gift, surrounded by family and local journalists.
Kadar spread his hand across its Army green surface. "Well, I finally got it," he said.
Sattler said her father smiled throughout the day. But no new stories came.
"There was no really memories brought back of what I really done, the miles I walked," Kadar said in a telephone interview. "The bag is a mystery; I don't remember anything about it."
Still, he said, he couldn't thank his granddaughter enough.
The local news report struck a chord. "Thank you, Mr. Kadar, for your service to this country," one online commentator wrote. "We owe you more than we could ever repay, and you deserve more than you would ever accept. You and your brethren truly were the greatest generation."
Soon, Kadar's phone was ringing: old friends, relatives, strangers. "There were some from California — oh, all over, Florida," Kadar said. "People that I knew and some others I didn't remember."
Sattler noticed more of a spring in her father's step, more of a sparkle in his blue eyes, after the empty duffel arrived.
"He's more ... cheerful when he calls," she said.
The flood of calls felt good, Kadar said. "It just," he paused, "was nice to hear from people."
Kadar's health has since waned and he rests at home now. When Haas visits, his smile is there. And she is there for him.
This recalls something he spoke about in the documentary.
"My granddaughter," Kadar said, his eyes framed by large brown glasses. "Boy, what she hasn't done for me."