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Through the Day, through the Night
A Flemish Belgian Boyhood and World War II
Jan Vansina

Best Special Interest Books, selected by the American Association of School Librarians
Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the Public Library Reviewers

“A captivating read. Not only a personal narration about the Flemish struggle to achieve cultural and political recognition, but also a lesson on how history and memory work.”
—Bogumil Jewsiewicki, Université Laval, Canada

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.


Jan VansinaJan Vansina is professor emeritus of African history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His many books include his memoir Living with Africa and the landmark Oral Tradition as History.







“[This] memoir is set against the backdrop of not only the increasing prewar radicalization of Belgian politics but also the Flemish-Walloon cultural and linguistic divide and its effects on [Jan Vansina’s] life. He depicts his experiences within the context of Antwerp and the surrounding villages and towns in which he moved around during the war, blending them into a seamless narrative.”

Through the Day, through the Night is more than a memoir. Jan Vansina has brought to the story of his boyhood and young adulthood the gifts of a historian and ethnographer, steeped in oral history. He highlights and illumines the culture of Belgium—his country of origin—and the culture of the upper class, Flemish, Catholic, intellectual, and artistic family in which he was raised. And he vividly conveys his coming-of-age experiences during World War II when Belgium was invaded and occupied by German forces.”
—Renée Fox, Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences, University of Pennsylvania



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Through the Day, through the Night

May 2014
LC: 2013033115 DH
320 pp.   5 1/2 x 8 1/4
38 b/w illustrations
2 maps
2 tables  

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Paper $26.95 t
ISBN 978-0-299-29994-1
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