Photo Credit: Courtesy Professor David Baker
Professor David Baker

We’ve seen images of skeletal survivors of the Holocaust. Now, thanks to a recent discovery at the University of Akron, we can hear their voices in song.

 

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Survivors Become Witnesses

In the summer of 1946, over a period of three months, psychologist Dr. David Boder from Lewis College (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) became the first to record the experiences of the survivors of the Holocaust. Dr. Boder, who spoke seven languages, interviewed about 130 Jewish survivors in refugee camps in France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany. With a wire recorder – then considered state-of-the-art equipment – and 200 spools of steel wire, Dr. Boder preserved oral histories of concentration camp survivors, songs in Yiddish, renditions of religious services, and camp anthems that inmates were forced to sing.

What motivated him? Several things. First, he wanted to preserve an authentic record of wartime suffering. Second, as a psychologist, he was professionally interested in the impact of extreme suffering on personality. “Dr. Boder developed an index for measuring the degree of trauma by assessing the language and method of description used by the survivor,” explains Professor David Baker, the Margaret Clark Morgan Executive Director of the Cummings Center at the University of Akron. In addition, Dr. Boder wanted to increase the knowledge of a post-war American public who knew little about what had happened to the victims in the ghettos and in the concentration camps. And finally, Dr. Boder hoped that the stories would be effective in advocating on their behalf for immigration to America.

On most days Dr. Boder conducted between two and five interviews, speaking to children, youth and adults and recording the stories of camp survivors, as well as those who endured the ghettos, hid in woods or on farms, fled to Russia or fought for Russia. Each interview lasted anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours. Dr. Boder returned to the US with over ninety hours of material and two hundred spools of wire recordings.

 

Finding the Songs

A portion of Dr. Boder’s work has been archived at the University of Akron’s Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology since 1967. In 1998, the Illinois Institute of Technology began digitizing the interviews. The next step came in 1999, when copies of Dr. Broder’s wire recordings at the Library of Congress were converted to Digital Audio Tape (DAT). The sound quality, however, was poor because static, distortion, hum, and other surface noise made the voices difficult to understand.

In 2000, the Voices of the Holocaust project launched a website which offered access to the text and audio interview material. Five years later, the project began to convert the DAT files into digital audio files, which were digitally remastered to improve intelligibility and remove the noise and other distortions caused by the decay of the wire medium over time.

“Researchers sometimes asked about a missing spool of songs recorded at a refugee camp in Henonville, France, and mentioned by Dr. Boder in his work, but we had no record of the spool and thought that it was long-lost,” says Professor Baker. It wasn’t until recently that the spool containing the “Henonville Songs” was discovered in a mislabeled canister.

When Jon Endres, a multimedia producer and media specialist at the Cummings Center, went through the three boxes of 48 spools in the archives, he began to examine what they knew they had on spools vs. what they had no idea about. Among the “confused” wire spools was one that had been erroneously entered as “Heroville Songs” instead of “Henonville Songs.”

“I think it is one of the most important discoveries we had made in our 50-year history,” says Professor Baker.

 

Let’s Listen

While the Cummings Center had several wire recorders in its collection, none were compatible with the spools on which Dr. Boder made his recordings. James Newhall, a senior multi-media producer in Instructional Services at the University of Akron, led the search for just the right model. It took a year and it was actually his co-worker, Litsa Varonis, who spotted the unit on eBay. Varonis, now retired from UA, made the purchase and donated the recorder to the center. Her husband, Orestes Varonis, a retired electrical engineer, provided Newhall with valuable advice as he redesigned the recorder to use modern electronic components. “There was a lot of time spent on research and experimentation,” says Newhall. “The recorder no longer uses vacuum tubes or rubber tires, and is mostly built from new parts. It has a more simple, and accurate, drive mechanism.” From there, Jon Endres was able to put the recordings into a digital format.

 

A New Perspective

“The recordings are pieces of the puzzle of our past,” says Professor Baker. One of the songs is a forced labor camp anthem that the Nazis made prisoners sing as they ran to their forced labor sites and back each day. While the lyrics were known, we were told this is likely the first known recording of the melody. “The song is a measure of the cruelty and inhumanity that many suffered,” he says.

Thanks to help from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum staff, the recordings were translated and new information was added to our understanding. Guta Frank, who sings two songs on the spool, introduced herself as Boder recorded her words. One of the songs she sings was a well-known song called Our Village Is Burning. Guta told Dr. Boder that the song was sung by the daughter of the composer in the basements of the Krakow ghetto to encourage people to continue in their rebellion against the Germans. The singer, however, changed the words of the song to The Jewish people Are Burning. In a moving addendum, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provided the Cummings Center with a memoir written by Guta’s sister. Suddenly, the voice was given an entire identity.

“After seventy years of silence, for the first time, we are actually hearing songs sung by those subjected to unspeakable cruelty,” says Professor Baker. As well as names, we now have voices. And through these voices, the unspeakable becomes so much more real.

“I hear strength and resilience in the voices,” says Professor Baker, “the fact that the survivors were able to live on and sing in a clear voice tells us much about the indomitable human spirit.” And in a time when voices deny that the Holocaust ever happened, these voices of survivors serve as witnesses to transmit the truth.

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Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now living in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.