Deciphering voices from the past

It all began in the 70s, with my primary school teacher whose methods of teaching would have led to her instant dismissal if Ofsted had existed in Germany back then. Not only did she smack our hands with a stick for any misdemeanour, she also taught us the old German handwriting (Kurrent or Sütterlin) which was at first proudly promoted during the NS regime and then, in 1941, banned. Initially, it had little benefit for me to know the old letters until, at Secondary School, I felt unfairly treated for having to write lines in form of an essay and decided to deliver the essay, but to do so in Kurrent. The teacher called it touché, and that’s when I fell in love with the old handwriting and the world it offered to those who can read it.

Any mourning members of my family are still able to take comfort in the words that my great-great-grandfather wrote to his daughter about the passing away of his beloved wife, but it’s not the only personal history that I have come to discover. In 2011, I was approached by a lady whose Jewish family had fled Germany in the 1930s. Among the few possessions she carried with her was the recipe book of her grandmother. I transcribed the book for her, amazed by the stories connected to it and touched by the personal value it still holds.

I then discovered the project “Europeana”, a crowd-sourcing initiative for the transcription of historical documents from all over Europe, to collect and digitalise personal memories of the First World War. When transcribing for Europeana, I learned the most fascinating aspects of daily life at the time – first-hand accounts from individuals who experienced this momentous global conflict themselves, be that in form of letters to friends and relatives, postcards from the front, scrap books with newspaper cuttings, diaries or poetry. What helped a lot was the number of years I had spent teaching German at a Secondary School in Sussex, when deciphering pupils’ handwriting became yet another tantalizing challenge.

The realisation that not many people are able, let alone interested in deciphering old German handwriting encouraged me to make this my specialism. I was fortunate to be offered an internship at the Imperial War Museum in London (project ‚Transforming IWM London‘), helping to transcribe and translate German documents from the Second World War, giving me a unique insight into the perspectives of both, victims and perpetrators.

How many documents, private letters and personal accounts from historical conflicts are still undiscovered, dusting away in archives, lofts and public institutions? A lot of them are handwritten, rendering machine translations unfit for purpose. That is where translators come in. They can help to unearth a multitude of voices from the past, not only for Genealogists but also for museums and national archives, contributing to our understanding of history. I never thought I’d say this to my old primary school teacher, but here you are: Thank you!

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