Is family history dead and unimportant?

Recently I had the opportunity to translate some letters and a diary written by Germans in the late 1800s. Of course, they were written in the then common Old German Handwriting also known as Sütterlin. It was only then that I realised that there are now only a few scholars that are familiar with this script and that to the vast majority of people nowadays this script is nothing but scribbles. I learned this script at primary school, not as the main script but as exercise in writing. I believe that my class was probably one of the last ones to be taught the old script; I even found that a lot of my friends could not even read the old books printed in Fraktur, although they are quite similar to the Latin alphabet except for capitals.

How sad, that there is a wealth of letters, diaries, and other documents from not too long ago, that is completely undecipherable to most people. The problem is not that there are no lists of the alphabet to assist in transcribing these old documents; the problem is that these lists mainly show the ‘ideal’ way to form the character. And as in modern script there is a huge difference between how the letters are taught by your primary school teacher and how they are written by the adult many years later. Only practice allows you to read individual handwritings and recognise what letter the little scribbles and curlicues are supposed to be.

My special problem with the translations was not only the individual’s idiosyncrasies but also that these documents were written in the local dialect which I am only vaguely familiar with. The first few pages took a long time to decipher until I got used to the writer’s style, and even so there were words and passages that remained a mystery, but thankfully never enough to hide the general idea behind the writings. As one of the writers moved to South Africa, he interspersed his German with English and Afrikaans words and passages, at the same time he also mixed up his alphabets and included words and passages in Latin writing.

The more I read, the more I got engrossed in the story. It opened up a window into the past, listening directly to these men, and their daily thoughts and interests. No official writing can be so direct and intimate, I felt I knew them and in the case of the diary writer, I could see how he grew through his experiences.

When you think about it, it is quite amazing that I got to know these long dead people. First, they had to be letter and diary writers, second there had to be a number of persons over time that thought it worthwhile to keep these writings for over 100 years and then pass them on to other relatives who happen to find me to help them translate them into English. I doubt they will ever be published but they did help their descendants to know more about where they came from and what their ancestors were like, what their problems and hopes were, how they struggled and survived.

I am lucky in that my family did some research into their past and kept records of their findings and so I have a fair idea of my background, but how many especially young people don’t know anything about their family apart from some living relatives. What I find so amazing, is that certain character traits seem to reappear in the family line in almost every generation and not always in a direct line. It makes me wonder how many things might be passed on through our genes or other ways, as these things reappear without any direct outside influence. Things like a need for exploration, an artistic talent or affinity with nature, leadership qualities, a love of cooking; all these intangible traits that make us who we are – and they all seem to have been there in one or more of our ancestors. How much are our lives determined by ourselves and how much is given to us from our forebears?

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