Student helps unveil Holocaust history in translating internship


At her internship, Webster student Lisa Johnson translates Holocaust-era documents that contribute to public knowledge of the Jews’ struggles at the time.

Johnson’s internship at the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum consists of reviewing German-language letters and documents written during the Holocaust and translating them to English.

The letters were sent in the ‘30s and ‘40s to a German fugitive named Walter, who escaped Germany and fled to Shanghai, China during the Holocaust. Shanghai was one of the few places Jews were not persecuted at the time.

Over 70 years later, the various letters sent to Walter from correspondents in Germany were donated to the Holocaust museum in Creve Coeur and are being reviewed by Johnson, who is majoring in German, so they can be uploaded to a nationwide research database of collections and archives.

“That’s actually thrilling, I think, [it] is contributing to the universal knowledge base,” Johnson said. “So let’s say over in Wisconsin or California, somebody is doing research on Shanghai Jews. And theoretically, if things work right, however they research it, this material should be available to scholars.”
Lisa Johnson came to Webster University to study German. She now translates documents at the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum. Contributed by Lisa Johnson.

By picking out keywords, Johnson makes determinations if the letters are about Holocaust victims being persecuted or general personal communications between Walter and his friends, such as “happy birthdays.” Johnson has been translating documents for the museum since 2019.

“I just look at the letter and I try and get a sense of what it’s about,” Johnson said. “These are letters that [Walter] received. It’s such a challenge to read them because they’re all different authors.”

Johnson has been pursuing her German degree at Webster since 2018. She said the internship was an opportunity to get hands-on experience in working with the German language.

“It’s given me confidence that I can contribute with this degree program. In the last year, maybe half a year, my boss over there at the archives has given me other things to look at that are in German that they need help with,” Johnson said.

She uses a scanner to make electronic copies of the documents, which are wrapped in mylar for protection. Occasionally, she uses a translation device for some older, uncommon German words but otherwise must manually read the varieties of handwriting.

“It’s an honor to work with primary source materials,” Johnson said. “That’s worth a million bucks, right? Every time you read a letter, diary of anybody … primary sources, that’s the beginning.”

Johnson said she never knew a lot about history and did not care for it in high school, but after gaining her internship almost three years ago it piqued her interest.

“I’m interested in the human experience; where people find themselves, where they land, where they’re born. What’s their surrounding? And how do they make the most of it?” Johnson said. “And the more I learned about it, the more I got interested in Holocaust studies.”

Johnson credits Paula Hanssen, associate professor of German at Webster and her academic advisor, for helping her achieve the internship.

In 2019, Hanssen was asked by staff at the museum if she had any students who could help translate their German archives collections. Hanssen brought the idea to Johnson.

“Because Paula was so supportive of it, and was ready to help or guide, it was a very positive experience,” Johnson said.

Hanssen is known for her work as a scholar in the International Brecht Society (named after German theater practitioner Bertolt Brecht), which is a world-renowned organization for those in the performing arts.

Johnson added Hanssen was also her inspiration to attend Webster.

“I needed something with language and culture together. And because Paula was here, I thought, well, that’s good. And I chose [Webster] over SLU and WashU and other choices,” Johnson said.

Johnson has previously achieved her doctorate in music at City University of New York Graduate Center, finishing her dissertation in 1992. She earned her first bachelor’s degree from State University of New York at Purchase in 1981.

She has spent a lifetime working in music as a clarinetist, going on to work in higher education as an instructor, administrator and college dean. She also has 40 years of experience performing concerts on Broadway, as well as in Germany at the Musiktheater Heidelberg starting in 2015.

It was her experience playing music in Germany that attracted her to learn the language. She began learning German at 55 years old.

However, when she took lessons, Johnson said it was difficult to find beginner-level German courses in her hometown of New York City. For her, this was further support to attend Webster.

“[After Germany] I ended up coming back to New York and doing a couple of years of evening courses, but they were all like conversational kind of courses. And so that’s when I said, ‘Well, if I really want to learn a language, I have to come and do a program somewhere,’” Johnson said.

Coming to Webster as a non-traditional student,which is a student who is not the age of 18-24, Johnson faced challenges.

“I had a big learning curve on the technology because everything’s different now. Everything is PowerPoints and make a poster and ‘do this-and-that,’” Johnson said. “And I don’t feel that the university has always been sympathetic to the older students. I got a little rebuffed from Help Desk places. [They] were not terribly sympathetic.”

Johnson said she sometimes feels like she is in Webster’s blind spot but does not fault the university for its focus toward  “traditional” students, who are coming in with more prior experience using the technology.

“I think the non-traditional student has to just be willing to fight the windmill a little bit,” Johnson said. “But I’ve come up along. I mean, it’s just things to learn.”

Johnson said she enjoys attending Webster despite the challenges as a non-traditional student. Furthermore, she said it is an advantage to have the availability at times typical young adult students do not due to work. Her open availability was key to securing her internship.

“When it came time for ‘Would you like to consider an internship?’ I’m in a whole other category because I’m just later in life and have more resources than I did [in my undergraduate] years,” Johnson said.

Johnson will be graduating with a second bachelor’s degree this May in addition to retaining her first bachelor’s degree, her master’s degree and her doctorate certification.

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Kate McCracken (she/her) is currently a staff writer for The Journal. She has previously worked as the lifestyle editor. She is a double major in Philosophy and History, minoring in Professional Writing. She has always loved to write and create stories, and she wrote her first book at age 10. Aside from writing, Kate also enjoys photography, environmental/animal activism, paranormal investigation and oneirology, the study of dreams.