UPDATE 20/10: On Thursday, Oct. 19, Dr. Annelies Augustyns won the audience award in the finals of the Flemish PhD cup 2023. She receives this prize for her VUB PhD research, in which she discovered new elements in Holocaust research using German-Jewish diaries.
Everyone knows Tales from the Secret Annex, based on the diaries and writings of Anne Frank during the German occupation of Amsterdam. Such diaries offer an uncensored look at daily life in a recent period of history. During her PhD research, Annelies Augustyns wanted to better understand how life in the Jewish community in the city of Breslau, today Wroclaw in Poland, changed during the rise, domination and fall of Hitler’s Third Reich.
That was problematic, because almost nothing was known about it, given that the city was almost completely destroyed at the end of the Second World War and became part of Poland. “Thanks to a recent transcript of German-Jewish diaries and some autobiographies, I was able to create a broader view of daily life during this terrible period,” says Augustyns. “The diaries acted as a literary weapon in a society with increasingly limited freedoms.”
Augustyns learned how people carried out small acts of resistance to take control of their own lives. “In 1933, Jews were no longer allowed to visit German shops, so Walter, a main character in this research, pretended to be a trader from Paris with a business card from a Parisian shop that he found in his jacket. He laughed in his diary at the ‘German stupidity’ of the Nazis when he managed to get into shops like this. The public space was increasingly inaccessible for Jews. That’s why Willy, a second character, found a solution by going to the Jewish cemetery with his children and playing with chestnuts.”
Eventually, the diaries also became a kind of survival tool. “They were a place to escape the daily inhumanities,” says Augustyns. “By writing down their thoughts, the persecuted people could still vent. It’s very human; you see it today on social media and public blogs that act as modern diaries.”
For the authors, every page was proof that they were still alive. They knew the chances of survival were slim, but they remained hopeful to the end. They also hoped their diaries would tell later generations about their suffering. Walter and Willy were deported in 1941 and shot dead at the Ninth Fort concentration camp in Kaunas, Lithuania, but their diaries live on. “Their diaries, which today bring everything into the open and shine a light from a dark time, remain their greatest act of resistance,” says Augustyns.
Augustyns’ research into life in Breslau has already served as inspiration for a new field of work for literary scholars and historians to further explore life in the Second World War.
Annelies Augustyns: [email protected]