Working with the past

If I had to choose the most interesting project of 2018, I would struggle to decide. Every document has allowed me a unique glimpse into a time that has long passed, something I may have touched upon in a history lesson, a film, a book. What those times really meant to the people involved is an eye-opener, every time.

Sometimes, I find the stories behind the documents heart-breaking. A family chronicle revealed the sad story of a family at the beginning of the 20th century who lost one of their two sons in the First World War. Of four daughters, one was stillborn and none of the other three lived longer than 15 months, and then the mother died when she was just 40 years old. The father remarried but one son of the second marriage fell in the Second World War and another went missing. After the war, the family had to flee their home, just because of political circumstances in which they had no say.

But there are other stories too, stories that are uplifting and inspiring, making me wonder how I would deal with certain situations. As a German in the UK, I would have been put into a Prisoner-of-War camp if I had lived here during the First World War unless I had fled the country. What would I have done? If I had stayed, how would I have felt about my chosen country in a PoW camp – differently? Translating the beautiful letters of a father to his son who was exactly in that situation truly touched my heart. The way he tried to lift his son’s spirits and his selfless decisions were amazing, and I loved every single letter I translated.

One document made me envy those who have a deep religious belief which can be such consolation in challenging times, like the letter of protection for a soldier from the mid-18th century. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it blesses the bearer of the letter, saying that no guns, swords, pistols or rifles may harm him, nor shall he be the victim of any thieves or murderers. And whoever does not believe in the power of the letter may copy it down, tie it to a dog and “shoot at him”, and he will see that it is true. What an amazing account of faith! I would love to know how many people carried a copy of this letter and got away with their life without serious injuries, but I will never know.

Not all handwriting is easy to decipher. In some cases, only intensive internet research enables me to identify names and places after guessing the most likely possibilities. Occasionally, there is a part of a letter that I cannot make head or tail of but after reading the whole correspondence, a clue comes up in a different letter. It is very exciting to then go back to the mystery and suddenly, it all makes sense.

Every document I translate is a history lesson in itself. I have discovered Yiddish words, old German names for Polish villages, professions I never knew existed, the average wage of a worker in the 1930s, the chaotic world of measures and money in different historical periods and a whole lot more. And yet, I’m aware that I don’t know much about history at all and I’m looking forward to discovering a lot more.

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