It was a mysterious, mislabeled canister that sat for 50 years, undisturbed, in the University of Akron’s archives.
But its recent discovery has provided a valuable addition to a precious trove of recordings: the earliest preserved voices of survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, just months after their liberation.
The University of Akron’s discovery, announced last week—a spool of wire containing a recording made in 1946 of Yiddish and German songs sung by Holocaust survivors in a refugee camp in Henonville, France— was part of a larger oral history project by David Boder, a professor back then at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The newly discovered recordings had been presumed lost. The IIT recordings themselves sat unknown for decades in a basement of the school’s archives until their own rediscovery in 2007.
IIT has a complete online archive of Boder’s recordings and has lent out one of his two existing wire recorders to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie for a temporary exhibit. ILHMEC curator Arielle Weininger explained the significance of Boder’s project:
Boder was working at IIT. There was another professor there who had developed a wire recorder. Boder had been looking into trauma in psychology. Once the war ended, he went over to Europe straightaway. I think it’s 109 recordings. In our gallery, on a long-term loan, we have one of the machines, and you can listen on headphones to some of the samples of different recordings. We have 6 selections in the gallery. One is a Latvian girls choir. It’s a loop of these different sections. It’s a lovely and important thing to have on display, especially for our museum. It’s local history. These are the very first interviews that were ever done of survivors. They’re really incredible.
If you go through them chronologically, you can see how he really changes. In the beginning—people didn’t have the knowledge they have now, he’s there so early, he’s almost accusatory. When he says, “How did you get to Auschwitz?” and the survivor will say, “In a boxcar,” he’ll say, “Why not first class, second class?”
Originally Boder did interviews in the Freudian style where he sat behind them so they wouldn’t see him. He asked other questions like, “How did you go to the bathroom?” And someone will say, “There was a bucket.”
It’s so unimaginable what these people have been through that he can’t get his head around it. He’s getting an understanding of what happens. You can even hear it change.
Because he was European, he spoke all these different languages. He was able to conduct these interviews in almost any language the interviewee spoke.
When Boder came back, no one wanted to hear about this. But he himself sent a copy to the Library of Congress. I think even IIT had lost a number of them, so they filled in the gaps of what they didn’t have from the Library of Congress. This came to light in the 90s when IIT discovered the recordings, and they got a grant to re-master everything.
You can listen in the original recording. You can read along in translation. It’s an incredible gift to Holocaust research and knowledge. Nothing like this was done.