Over 10,000 Luxembourgish women and men wore German uniforms during WWII in armed forces and civil organisations – many were drafted by the Nazi German authorities – and behind each name is a story waiting to be told. A team of researchers has been working with families in Luxembourg to piece together the personal stories of the war generation in Luxembourg.
The project WARLUX (Soldiers and their communities in WWII: The impact and legacy of war experiences in Luxembourg) focuses on biographies of young Luxembourgers, born between 1920 and 1927, that were drafted by the Nazi German authorities for the Labour Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst) and the German Army (Wehrmacht).
With a team of two PhD students, postdoctoral researcher Dr Nina Janz has been collecting data about their biographies, investigating their individual profiles and social background.
“The conscription of young Luxembourgers is mainly recorded in official documents, including police files, enrolment registration records from regional authorities, transportation lists, and military records about their service. However, the study of biographies requires a more personal insight into the lives of those affected, because behind every name are individual and personal life stories that we want to explore,” Nina Janz, who has a background in archival science and military history, explains.
Besides official lists or formal state documents, the researchers were initially unable to find anything “personal” about these men and women. They began looking for personal statements, reports and other documents – also no easy task, as this information is scattered all over Europe, with many archives located in Germany and as far away as Russia.
Working with families in Luxembourg to complete parts of the puzzles
“We needed more to draw a whole picture of an individual and their tragic experiences during the Second World War. My team and I launched a call to war witnesses and their families to find and identify personal documents, diaries, memories and photographs that provide insight into individual experiences and stories during the war,” Nina explains.
In 2021, the team launched a call with the goal to expand the collection of personal documents to gain insight into the lives and experiences of the people involved.
“We asked families and contemporary witnesses to search in their basements and attics in old boxes and cupboards of grandparents and parents to find documents and photos about that time.”
The cooperation with the families was completed at the end of 2021 – to overwhelming success. Thanks to the material gathered, the team has been able to build up their collection needed for further research.
“The collaboration of the families of the affected persons was significant to create the documents collection about the personal war experiences of the Luxembourgers. We could establish a unique collection to record and preserve the war experiences of this repressed and dark chapter of Luxembourg’s history to remember the pain and the losses this war generation had to endure.”
Digitising every piece of information
Nina explains the biggest challenge remains accessing sources. “After the “hunt” for information, which sometimes felt like detective work, we had to read through stacks and boxes of files. The names are hidden in lists and official letters; the sources are not available digitally like in a Google search, and I had to evaluate the names one by one.”
The lack of digitised archives is also a challenge – the needed documents are not all digitally available, and the only few time witnesses of this dark chapter in European history are alive today, meaning the team must rely on written statements.
“My team and I digitised and converted the analogue data into machine-readable form, and entered the information into a relational database to preserve and merge the collected data. So digital tools like transcription software, databases and catalogues help us to search, analyse and preserve the biographical information and individual stories of these people.”
“While building our own collection, we digitised every piece. We used digital tools such as Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to make the analogue documents machine-readable and thus accessible for in-depth analysis,” Nina explains, adding that to obtain data from this period, the researchers need to preserve it and make it publicly available.
Dr Nina Janz is a Postdoc researcher at the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH) at the University of Luxembourg, where she manages and coordinating the FNR CORE project ‘WARLUX (Soldiers and their communities in WWII: The impact and legacy of war experiences in Luxembourg)’.
Stay up to date about this project – visit the project website.
Photos by Nina Janz
More about Nina Janz
On her passion for history
“My passion is to discover hidden stories and bring them to light. As a teacher, I want to talk about the dark chapters of history, to educate and inform, to train the young generation for today and the future, to work together for a strong and united Europe, without racism and discrimination, as it was in the terrible times during the Nazi occupation.”
“Curiosity and knowledge and an interest in unknown stories from the past. I study the past to better understand the present, to learn from it and to teach and educate the youth.”
On where she sees herself in 5 years
“My passion is history, and I plan to remain in the academic field, preferably in Luxembourg or the Greater Region, to continue what we started with Project Warlux and extend it to Belgium and France.”
On why she decided to conduct her research in Luxembourg
“The C2DH is leading in the field of digital history in Europe, and I am excited to be part of such an excellent and professional team. For my project, my background in archival science and military history is perfect to bring my knowledge and expertise to this project and make a real contribution to this topic in Luxembourg.”
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