It’s hard enough to read someone else’s handwriting in your native language, let alone in one you learned in graduate school. But to my immense relief, most of the documents I’ve come across so far are typed. In some cases that’s because somebody’s secretary typed up copies of handwritten reports (thank you!). But in other cases people typed their own reports or letters. It surprises me how many businesses and individuals still had their own typewriters just after the war. I wonder if people hid them from the Germans the same way they hid their radios and their bicycles.

But not everyone used a typewriter, and not everyone wrote legibly. I give you Exhibit A, a letter written to John Henry Weidner in 1946 from a man who had crossed the Dutch-Belgian border many times in the service of Dutch-Paris. That’s about as far as I got on my own before calling in my father, who grew up in Maastricht and can read Dutch handwriting because he writes that way himself. He bought a magnifying glass for the job.


Further levels of interpretative difficulty lurk beneath the handwriting. The author’s annoyance at having to write in the first place comes through clearly. He has been asked many times by Dutch-Paris, the Dutch government and even the Americans for reports, when all he wants to do is focus on his university studies. He is also offended by some of the payments made to some members of Dutch-Paris at the liberation, at a time when he himself was captive in a concentration camp. And he’s angry that he has not been reimbursed for the 500 Belgian francs and 50 Dutch guilders that the Germans took from him when they arrested him.

Weidner replied that he would get his money back for him (from the Dutch government rather than the Germans), but first he needed a report. Then Moun, Weidner’s lieutenant in Belgium, wrote with his home phone number to ask the author to call him. That’s the end of the file.

And that’s one of the great potholes of researching the twentieth century: the telephone. The historian is inundated with typed and duplicated reports, letters, receipts, white papers, memoranda etc, etc, etc. But if someone said something, or agreed to something, or revealed something over an untapped telephone, it is lost to history.

If I come across an entry for the payment of 500 Belgian francs and 50 Dutch guilders to a certain member of Dutch-Paris in a carefully kept Dutch account book, we’ll know that he got his money. But how or where I’d find out what information Weidner so persistently wanted from him, I do not know.