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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Collecting individual and personal stories of the war generation in Luxembourg


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

  • u003cdiv class=u0022ult_exp_content ult_active_sectionu0022u003ernu003cdiv class=u0022ult_ecpsub_contu0022u003ernu003cdiv class=u0022wpb_text_column wpb_content_element u0022u003ernu003cdiv class=u0022wpb_wrapperu0022u003ernrnu003cemu003eExcerpt from ‘u003ca href=u0022 target=u0022_blanku0022 rel=u0022noopeneru0022u003ePersonal stories of Luxembourgish conscriptsu003c/au003e‘u003c/emu003ernu003cdiv class=u0022article__summaryu0022u003eu003cstrongu003eTogether with students, the WARLUX team researches the personal side of the history of Luxembourgers, born between 1920 and 1927, who were enrolled into German services during the Second World War. To uncover the individual experiences of these men, women and families, the team of WARLUX collects ego documents and personal interviews of this generation. As one of the last surviving witnesses, Madame Jacoby-Sheehan welcomed Dr Nina Janz and Cristina Sobral to talk about her war experience.u003c/strongu003eu003c/divu003ernu003cdivu003eu003c/divu003ernu003cdiv class=u0022article__summaryu0022u003eCristina Sobral is a student (B.A. Cultures Européennes) at the University of Luxembourg. During her summer semester she conducted research for Dr. Janz’ class (“Biographies of Luxembourgish conscripts in WWII”) about Madame Jacoby-Sheehan and her life during the war.u003c/divu003ernu003cdiv class=u0022article__body body-text paragraphu0022u003ernu003ch2u003eGeorgette Jacoby-Sheehan – The story of a young woman’s war strugglesu003c/h2u003ernGeorgette Jacoby, born on 28 July 1922, was living in Luxembourg City during the occupation and was of Luxembourgish and Italian nationality.rnrnOn 10 May 1940, Georgette witnessed the German invasion and spotted a field kitchen and horses stationed in the park near her home at Boulevard du Prince. As a feeling of fear struck her, she called after her father. She stood shortly before her 18th birthday. German officials occupied many local residencies and evicted the inhabitants. Georgette’s father renounced the offer of moving into a property that had been stolen from Jews, and moved into a run-down apartment in Luxembourg Grund, next to a Nazi neighbour. Many families from the community were forced to give up their private vehicles. Georgette’s father drove his three-month-old Crysler to Charlesville and handed it over to the Nazis. The men from the community also participated in theu003cemu003e Luftschutzdienstu003c/emu003e in their neighbourhood, as did her father.rnrnWhen she returned to school, Georgette refused to join the u003cemu003eBund deutscher Mädchenu003c/emu003e (BdM), resulting in her expulsion.The German invasion brought many changes for young Georgette: She lost her well-beloved environment and had to move, her education suffered, and her father struggled to enter a well-paid job since he vehemently refused to join the Vu003cemu003eolksdeutsche Bewegungu003c/emu003e (VDB) and was consequently discriminated against.rnrnu003cimg src=u0022 /u003ernu003ch2u003eGeorgette’s conscriptionu003c/h2u003ernIn March 1942 Georgette received the order to present herself for her u003cemu003eReichsarbeitsdienstu003c/emu003e. With the help of her father, she evaded recruitment for two days before being forcefully removed from her home by two officers.rnrnShe was stationed in Lindlar near Cologne. A bombing alarm caused her train to arrive late at night. Georgette’s tardiness was commented harshly upon by her supervisor. The ill-equipped camp did not have proper lighting and no cooling space for foods and meats. Although she hypothesised about deserting, her fear about the consequences for her father kept her in place.rnrnIn the camp she was forced to adhere to the Nazi ideology and was punished with most difficult or uncomfortable tasks. Georgette got in trouble regularly, especially for associating with the French war prisoners. Shortly after her arrival, she was immediately reprimanded for speaking French and to them, which made her a future target for her u003cemu003eLeiterinu003c/emu003e. She kept in contact with the men and regularly exchanged cigarettes for chocolates with them. Every punishment was met by one of her provocative and challenging answers. But certain aspects were consoling: Luckily, she shared a room with five fellow Luxembourgish women, that she had known from her childhood. Those friendships made it possible for her to endure the rigid discipline and otherwise lonely conditions. Georgette stayed with farmer families that she described as kind and even got to listen to the then forbidden English BBC broadcast once with one of them.rnrnu003cimg src=u0022 /u003ernrnMost of her duties consisted in helping those families with their daily work. She assisted them by milking the cows, which she was rarely successful with, and cleaning the stalls, a preferred activity, or even with simple household duties. She also helped with the collection of the potato harvest, where she used the opportunity to exchange goods with the French prisoners. One moment of excitement occurred during her camp time, when she and the other girls were awakened in the middle of the night by their supervisors to listen to a radio broadcast about the Americans landing in Europe and the ensuing fight. This moment awakened joy and hope in Georgette.rnrnGeorgette had also been supposed to give her oath on Hitler in Lindlar. Her stubborn refusal landed her in prison for six weeks, during which she was forbidden to send letters to her only correspondent, her father. Knowing her father would have stormed the camp to rescue his daughter, her roommates and friends wrote to him on her behalf and lied about her being hospitalised due to a cold and an injury. Father and daughter corresponded regularly, and Georgette’s father sent her many packages with perishables such as cakes, breads or even cigarettes that she ended up exchanging with the French prisoners. After Georgette’s return on the 3rd of November 1941, her father, fearing for her safety, managed to find her a job at SIEMENS so that she could evade enrolment into the u003cemu003eKriegshilfsdienstu003c/emu003e.rnu003ch2u003eAfter the waru003c/h2u003ernThe day of the liberation, 10 September 1944, Georgette started a new job as a prison guard in the female’s prison. She remembered having heard many people in town celebrate the liberation. She had witnessed the Americans fighting German soldiers and observed their escape. Having kept her off-the-grid and self-assured personality, she explained not holding any grudges against Germans, even years later.rnrnAround that time, she met her future husband, Georges Sheehan, in her uncle’s hotel u003cemu003eItalia u003c/emu003ethat she would marry in 1954. After her vows, the couple remained in Bonnevoie with Georgette’s father and had one daughter. Although she remembered her war experience as an emotional ordeal, she is of the opinion that many suffered far worse. She also believed God to have kept her safe.rnrnGeorgette Jacoby Sheehan, and many other Luxembourgish women, suffered an attempt of indoctrination under the Nazi regime. She was exploited on a camp during her u003cemu003eReichsarbeitsdienstu003c/emu003e and verbally abused for her defiance towards an oppressing and violating government. Still, she managed to take back control over her life and used work as a means of escaping more Nazi-related organisations. The day of the liberation marked itself into her brain, and to she has kept vivid memories of it to this day. Today, Georgette lives in Echternach.rnrnCristina’s personal impression: “Meeting and interviewing Georgette Jacoby was a delight for me. Since Georgette Jacoby’s life is rich of history, her willingness to share her impressions and experiences regarding the Second World War is a much-needed approach for research. Her kind- and open-hearted, yet witty, personality made for an impressive interviewee.rnrnAs a future historian, the opportunity of conversation with an individual whose memories are indispensable to research excites. This experience is enriching to both research and historical passion: Every individual partakes in shaping the past and historical events, so historical research should be available to all of us. I thank Madame Jacoby for her time and interest in furthering our project.”.rnrnu003cimg src=u0022 /u003ernrnu003cemu003eWritten by Cristina Sobralu003c/emu003ernrnu003cemu003eEdited by Nina Janzu003c/emu003ernrnu003chr /u003ernrnu003cstrongu003eREFERENCESu003c/strongu003ernrnu003cemu003eEVEN, Georges, Ons Jongen a Meedercher. Die gestohlene Jugendzeit, 1st Edition Luxembourg 2012.u003c/emu003ernrnu003cemu003eEVEN, Georges (Fédération des Enrôlés de Force)/JACOBY, Georgette, Jacoby Georgette, Luxembourg (Interview) (08.05.2013), in: YouTube, URL: u003ca href=u0022 target=u0022_blanku0022 rel=u0022noopeneru0022u003e (last consulted: 15.05.2021).u003c/emu003ernrnu003cemu003eFÉDÉRATION DES ENRÔLÉS DE FORCE, Jacoby Georgette. 28/07/1922, in: Ons- Jongen-a-Meedercher, URL: u003ca href=u0022 target=u0022_blanku0022 rel=u0022noopeneru0022u003ehttp:///www.ons-jongen-a- (last consulted: 27.06.2021).u003c/emu003ernrnu003c/divu003ernu003c/divu003ernu003c/divu003ernu003c/divu003ernu003c/divu003e

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.”

About Spotlight on Young Researchers

Spotlight on Young Researchers is an annual FNR campaign where we shine a Spotlight on early-career researchers across the world with a connection to Luxembourg. Over 100 features have been published since the first edition in 2016.

Browse them below!

Dr Nina Janz