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Through the Day, through the Night

A Flemish Belgian Boyhood and World War II

Jan Vansina

Publication Year: 2014

One of twelve children in a close-knit, affluent Catholic Belgian family, Jan Vansina began life in a seemingly sheltered environment. But that cocoon was soon pierced by the escalating tensions and violence that gripped Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. In this book Vansina recalls his boyhood and youth in Antwerp, Bruges, and the Flemish countryside as the country was rocked by waves of economic depression, fascism, competing nationalisms, and the occupation of first Axis and then Allied forces.
            Within the vast literature on World War II, a much smaller body of work treats the everyday experiences of civilians, particularly in smaller countries drawn into the conflict. Recalling the war in Belgium from a child’s-eye perspective, Vansina describes pangs of hunger so great as to make him crave the bitter taste of cod-liver oil. He vividly remembers the shock of seeing severely wounded men on the grounds of a field hospital, the dangers of crossing fields and swimming in ponds strafed by planes, and his family’s interactions with occupying and escaping soldiers from both sides. After the war he recalls emerging numb from the cinema where he first saw the footage of the Nazi death camps, and he describes a new phase of unrest marked by looting, vigilante justice, and the country’s efforts at reunification.
            Vansina, a historian and anthropologist best known for his insights into oral tradition and social memory, draws on his own memories and those of his siblings to reconstruct daily life in Belgium during a tumultuous era.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

I love stories, especially stories that really happened. I like to listen to them, I like to tell them, and I have heard a great many more or less true stories about the past as I studied oral history and oral tradition. In the last few years alone, my work has led me to the manuscript record of the...

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pp. xiii-xiv

This book would never have been written without the input of Dr. Gwen Walker, acquisition editor for the University of Wisconsin Press. Initially, a remark by a sociologist acquaintance suggested the idea of an autobiography to me and led me to send a vague query to Dr. Walker...

A Note on Spelling Conventions

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pp. xv-2

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1. First Discoveries: 1929 to 1933

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pp. 3-29

Magic. I look happily up at a flood of sunlight filtered by some material streaming toward me from high above. Two shadowy blobs, one to the right, one to the left, are hovering over me, the one to the left twinkling from time to time with light. This is perhaps my first memory as I stepped into my life, or rather...

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2. A Carefree Beginning: 1933 to 1939

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pp. 30-70

Once when I was three or just four I received a fascinating tiny little vase painted with delicate blue flowers on a white background, and while admiring it in the company of Mother and two of my sisters I accidentally dropped it. When it broke in two I picked up the pieces and asked Mother...

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3. War Erupts: July 1939 to June 1940

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pp. 71-97

At Easter 1939 we moved as usual to Gooreind—this time not to the familiar Meezennestje, but to Wiezelo, a new house well outside the village proper. We stayed there during the whole spring trimester and commuted every school day to attend St. Lievens in Antwerp, approximately thirteen miles away. The household only returned to the Markgravestraat a few...

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4. Hungry Years: July 1940 to Summer 1943

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pp. 98-125

A tall fisherman, clad in oilskins, was heaving a fish even taller than he was on his back: That was the label of the bottle of cod liver oil to which I was addicted. It was early summer now, I was back from school, and overall daily life was returning to its usual ways. The violent storm of...

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5. Ominous Horizons: July 1943 to September 1944

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pp. 126-164

As the tide of the war first wavered and then turned decisively against Germany, every ripple of its fortunes seemed to impact almost instantly on the hitherto usual practices of the occupation, and every change in those practices pulled Belgian civilians deeper and deeper into the vortex...

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6. Unravelings and Outcomes: September 1944 to September 1945

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pp. 165-195

The period that followed left a deep impression on me and all my siblings over ten years old, to judge by the number, variety, and overall intensity of our reminiscences. Each of us recalls incidents that others in the family remember differently, or not at all, and nearly all of these...

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7. In Search of a Vocation: October 1945 to July 1951

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pp. 196-225

The war was over, and so was my childhood. One year after liberation the family at Wiezelo was changing radically. The tight unit we had been in war began to disperse as the older children started to strike out on their own, each focusing outward, eager to move away. In that autumn of 1945...

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pp. 226-232

It soon became evident after my arrival at the Tervuren museum that whatever Olbrechts’s opinion was when he hired me, I was woefully unprepared to leave for Africa barely a month or so later. I had not had any training in anthropology or any of the other social sciences, nor did I...

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Suggestions for Further Reading

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pp. 233-238

Any autobiography is always rooted in reminiscences and sometimes, as is the case here, reminiscences that seem to date back more than threequarters of a century ago. Yes, “seem” because what we remember actually are not the events themselves but our most recent evocation of...


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pp. 239-247

E-ISBN-13: 9780299299934
E-ISBN-10: 0299299937
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299299941
Print-ISBN-10: 0299299945

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 38 b/w photos, 2 maps, 2 tables
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 877850489
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Through the Day, through the Night

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Subject Headings

  • Belgium -- History -- German occupation, 1940-1945 -- Biography.
  • Historians -- United States -- Biography.
  • Belgians -- Biography.
  • Flemings -- Belgium -- Biography.
  • Vansina, Jan.
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