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Searching for the Right Words

Students add to research on Holocaust by translating privately held documents

By Elizabeth Anderson


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Alex Lorenz had his students translate Holocaust-era documents for the first time in fall 2019.

The paper is yellowed with age, the neat handwriting faint but still legible.

“My dearest,” the letter from Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp begins. “I have received the letters from December 8th and January 6th, the three packages also. I thank you very much for your effort with everything.”

The message, penned by Czech prisoner Libuše Marianová in February 1943, is among a trove of World War II documents that were translated for the first time by students in Assistant Professor Alex Lorenz’s Introduction to German Translation class in fall 2019.

Those documents were shared with Lorenz by a private collector, Brad Lephew, who had been searching for someone willing to undertake the time-consuming task of translating the German script. When Lephew connected with Lorenz, the professor saw an opportunity for his students to learn about a dark part of German history through primary sources.

Now Lorenz’s class, held every two years, has a new collection to work with – the papers of Holocaust survivor Samuel Finkel, whose granddaughter reached out to Lorenz after hearing about the first project.

The work is meaningful on many levels, Lorenz says. “I took this on because I knew there’s a need,” he says. “Most of these families are Americans who have this background from the Holocaust, and they have all these documents at home that they tried to decipher and nobody is helping them with that.”

Professional translators generally prefer high-paying jobs, he notes – documents or manuals needed by companies or corporations. Having students translate these personal collections provides a service to the community, Lorenz says, while also developing important career skills – research, teamwork, writing, revising.

Like other students, senior Nataliya Vykhovanets found deciphering the old-fashioned handwriting one of the biggest challenges of doing a translation. “You don’t want to misinterpret one of the words, since that could change the whole meaning,” Vykhovanets says.

Though she’s a German minor, Vykhovanets was pleasantly surprised she could successfully translate something written in a language she isn’t fluent in. Lorenz says students only need two semesters of German to be able to translate. “Writing is the first thing that develops in language acquisition,” he explains.

Just like in a professional translation agency, students work in teams on a batch of documents. Lorenz mixes students of different fluency levels, so those more experienced in German can help those who aren’t, and from different majors, to bring different perspectives to the work.

The Finkel collection includes many personal letters and documents that trace the family’s history from the time their home in Austria was seized by the Nazis and the family split up, to communications sent by Samuel Finkel from the detention camps in England and Australia where he was held, to Finkel’s efforts to reunite with his daughter in San Francisco and find out the fate of his wife after the war.

Freshman Julius Storino says working with the documents makes personal the devastation of the Holocaust. “Normally when you hear about the Holocaust, you just see a big number. You forget that behind all these numbers is a person with their own story,” he says.

At the end of the semester, each group presents their work to the client and shares their reflections about what they’ve learned. The translations, which bear the students’ names, and the scanned documents are then submitted to the South Carolina Digital Library Collections, where scholars and history buffs anywhere in the world can access them.

Lorenz says he would like to secure funding that would allow a student or students to work year-round on translating Holocaust-era collections. These are documents that are significant not just to the people who own them, he notes, but to all of us. “That whole time really shaped the society that we are today.”