Trying to read some ‘forgotten’ diaries

Lorena De Vita about the Wording Repair project

Dr. Lorena De Vita

Over ten years ago Lorena De Vita conducted her PhD research into the history of German-Israeli relations. As she worked in the archives of the German Christian Democratic Party in Sankt Augustin, near Bonn, she came across many bureaucratic documents portraying how West-German politicians looked at the reparation negotiations with Israel and the Jewish Claims Conference, which took place in Wassenaar in 1952.

Unique source

It was during that archival research stint that she stumbled upon some typed pages that were very different from any other source she had come across until then. They were an excerpt from the personal diary of Otto Küster, a German jurist who served as the deputy head of the West German negotiation delegation in Wassenaar.

“This source was very different from the other sources I had read until that moment. The way in which Otto Küster wrote about the negotiations took me to that room in the Wassenaar country estate. What did it mean to stand there as a German, waiting for the Israelis to come in? It was a personal and, to a certain extent, almost intimate record of a very important political development that I was researching at that time.

In the end, those typed pages became one of many hundreds of footnotes in my book. But even after the book was long finished, I kept thinking about those pages. This is how I gradually came into contact with the family of Otto Küster, who kindly showed me, and let me work with, his personal diaries. It turned out that he had kept a diary throughout most of his adult life, and the collection of his diaries overall covers the years from 1932 to 1989 - an unusually long span of time. His handwriting, however, is almost illegible, both for the members of his own family and for specialized scholars and experts. It is a unique privilege to work with these documents, which have never been used by researchers until now.”

A number of Otto Küster's diaries. Photo: Lorena De Vita


“During the preparations for the Wassenaar negotiations, Otto Küster tried to make clear to the German Chancellor and to many other policy makers in Bonn that these talks were not going to be ‘usual’ negotiations over reparations as they had until then unfolded in the aftermath of conflict. That practice had a long history (and in 1952 the West Germans were indeed also negotiating with their creditors after the First and Second World Wars in London). But this negotiation was different – this was the first time that the representatives of people who committed genocide stood opposite the victims of the target group of the extermination.

It was also a strategic choice on the part of the West Germans to send people to the negotiations who represented the perpetrators, but who were not perpetrators themselves and had not supported the regime. Otto Küster was fired from his job as an auxiliary judge in 1933 because he had openly criticized Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. While he survived the years of the regime, many others did not. He had a deep understanding of the kind of atonement Germany had to do – though many other people at that time, did not."

His words leave us a personal, intimate record of a very important political development.

Digitaliseringstool Transkribus

Illegible handwriting

The diaries are written in a mix of Kurrentschrift, Sütterlin, and modern German.

“I attended a Transkribus workshop organized by the Centre for Digital Humanities, delivered by Arja Firet and Coen van der Stappen of the Digital Humanities team of the university library. Knowing more about Transkribus gave me the courage to try and put together a research team to start transcribing the diaries. This project will take up years, but this is a serious attempt at an experimental, interdisciplinary research that blends historical and digital humanities methods.

I am working on a book, because I think that this story deserves a book. And if I could get more research funding, it would be very helpful for the whole team and the work with the diaries, which represent a unique historical document. Yet this project itself is already a fantastic achievement, because the diaries are so difficult to read, yet they are so worthy of our attention.”

This story deserves a book

The Wording Repair project

The Wording Repair project researches the history of reparation and compensation practices in the aftermath of the Holocaust. At its core are the diaries of German jurist Otto Küster, who dedicated a large part of his professional life to the question of reparation and compensation in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The project uses Transkribus to transcribe the handwritten lines of the original documents, which are very hard to read. The project is executed by an international and interdisciplinary team of experts and students.

Lorena: “Everyone’s role is crucial here. I had high-quality scans made by a local specialist firm. Teresa and Naomi, the research and student assistants, check the quality of the scans and Coen, the university library digitization expert, uploads them in Transkribus. Postdoc Laura trains the model and Frank in Germany cross-checks her work. We are an international team and this project is carried by us all together.”

Two diaries with a laptop. Photo: Lorena De Vita

Working with Transkribus

Laura Fahnenbruck works as postdoc for the Wording Repair project. She says: “What Transkribus does is translating the layout of the uploaded scans to lines with empty lines underneath. You can fill them by reading what the lines say and typing the words in the empty rules. You start with a small part of text and then you tell the computer: learn to finish the other pages yourself. In this way you train the program. In the case of the Wording Repair project,we are dealing with the handwriting of an individual. So we need to explain to the computer: this is how this handwriting’s “a” looks like, the “b”, and so on.

One needs to enter a lot of data before the transcription is actually readable! I have worked before with Transkribus when working with letters, but if you are writing a letter to someone you are trying your best to write in such a way that the other can read your text. That does not apply to a private diary. In many ways, we are still at the very beginning. We do have training data, but that is not yet enough to read the text properly. Still, we use each and every one of the readable lines that we can to improve each transcription, and it is brilliant to see the text gradually come back to life.”

Dr. Lorena De Vita and Dr. Laura Fahnenbruck present the preliminary findings of the Wording Repair project during theTranskribus User Conference, 15 February 2024 in Innsbruck, Austria

Would you like to know more about Transkribus and how you can use it in your research? On 20 March Lorena De Vita and Laura Fahnenbruck will give a hybrid lecture about the Wording Repair project, followed by a Transkribus workshop given by Coen van der Stappen and Arja Firet in which you can work with Transkribus yourself.