… to all my past, current, and future clients, and to everyone else who happens to read this. As yet another challenging year comes to an end, it’s time to reflect and to look ahead to the immediate future, but it’s also a time to celebrate what went well and what keeps us going. Many of us were personally affected by events and the news may have been full of doom and gloom, but every now and then, I found that a story of community spirit re-kindled a feeling of hope and reassurance. One of my favourite news of the year was a recent report about the helpers in the German Ahr valley where a landslide had caused unbelievable devastation. The report was compiled by students of journalism at the Johannes-Gutenberg University of Mainz: six heart-warming videos about volunteers who help rebuild not just houses and infrastructure, but lives.
Working with historical documents proves to me that challenging times always existed and that it’s the personal stories that really matter. By transcribing and translating my clients’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, I was witness to many upsetting personal stories which revealed stunning accounts of resilience and bravery.
In one correspondence, I learned about the moment when the last of Napoleon’s soldiers suddenly attacked the city of Basel with cannons in July 1815, completely unexpectedly. It must have been incredibly frightening for the inhabitants and yet, the writer tries to reassure the recipient of the letter not to worry, thanking providence that his and his family’s lives were saved.
Particularly tragic are letters from Jewish ghettos and concentration camps in which it’s evident that no real information could be put in writing as it wouldn’t have passed the censorship. It’s remarkable how clever people were in writing between the lines, conveying information that still managed to describe the unspeakable circumstances. But even in these circumstances, they would try to find solace wherever they could, in their faith and in the smallest little gestures. One letter that stayed with me ends with the words: “I hope you will receive these lines and that you answer soon, because your letters are a healing plaster for our suffering.”
As always, I keep learning. I never knew about the rigorous health checks conducted by the NS regime before they arranged the resettlement of ethnic Germans from East European states to the newly occupied territory which I discovered when translating selected records of affected families. If you – and your ancestors! – were not perfectly healthy in body and mind, your dream of moving out of devastating poverty would remain hopeless. In addition, you had to prove that you were of “true German blood” on application. The so-called racial “science” behind the health checks left me speechless and had it not been documented and filed so thoroughly, such evidence of fascist ideology would not have surfaced through the work of genealogist researchers 80 years later. The whole subject of the so-called “race science” is a gruesome research topic, particularly as there appears to be evidence that there are groups who are trying to revive it. Thank Goodness we can learn from the past and recognise the warning signs due to our ongoing, thorough research.
A particularly proud moment for me in 2021 was to be commissioned to write a booklet for the descendants of a German refugee couple. I compiled it after translating the correspondence of the couple who managed to leave the country just in time before the Second World War began. The whole family and all their friends were affected by the atrocities of the Nazis, but sadly, only some survived. And again, I found truly remarkable examples of bravery, compassion, love, and readiness to help, even in the most adverse situations of life.
When I think how strange, how difficult life has become lately, when I read or watch the news and worry about the virus, the climate, wars, and refugees, then I just need to remind myself of the work I do, showing me that it’s all about trying to do whatever we can in the situation, individually. Like those before us who also had tremendous challenges, certainly worse than the ones I personally face now, because I happen to be one of the lucky people who had the luck of the draw to be born at a time and in a place where many others would love to be. Something to keep in mind for the new year, I think.