Holocaust Survivor Recordings Discovered at the University of Akron

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When the death camps and ghettos of Europe were liberated at the end of World War II, a psychologist from Chicago visited former prisoners and recorded dozens of interviews.  David Boder’s recordings are among the earliest testimonies from Holocaust survivors.  But, long-missing from this collection was a reel of songs recently discovered at the University of Akron.  That music tells a story you might not expect.

Jon Endres gingerly threads a thin, silver strand of wire through a machine that will reproduce some sounds unheard for decades.  He presses a button and a speaker crackles with the voice of a man from over 70 years ago:

“1,2,3….1,2.3…. testing, 1,2,3 …"

Adjusting a knob, Endres says, "Basically, it runs like a reel-to-reel tape recorder, if you remember those."

Endres is a media specialist at the University of Akron.  He and colleague James Newhall were part of a project to reconstruct this ancient audio player and digitize some recordings made by psychologist David Boder. 

David Baker is executive director of the University’s Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, and he says one of Boder’s areas of interest was the measurement of trauma.  In 1946, he got a grant to Travel to Europe and interview Holocaust survivors. Those recordings were later copied and archived at the Cummings Center, Library of Congress and the National Holocaust museum.  But, the collection wasn’t complete.

"Scholars were telling us there was a missing reel," says Baker.  "There was a reel of songs that were sung to Boder by Holocaust survivors in a camp in France, after the war.  And people were looking for that reel.  We had a box of reels, and scholars would ask from time to time: 'Do you know what’s on those?'  And we had to say, 'No, we don’t.  And we don’t have a way to listen to them."

But now they do.  David Boder's voice from the past continues.

“We are reproducing on this spool a set of songs that have been recorded at Henonville, fifty kilometers from Paris, at a colony of displaced persons,” Boder says. 

David Baker says the recent discovery of this long-missing reel of songs in the Cummings Center archives has sparked world-wide interest.

"Two of the songs were sung by a woman named Guta Frank," he says.  "Guta Frank had survived a number of the ghettos in Poland, eventually ending up doing forced labor at a munitions factory.  One of the songs they translated for us was 'Our Village is Burning.'  In singing the song, she changed the lyric from 'our village is burning' to 'the Jewish people are burning."

For prisoners who had no means of writing down and preserving what was happening to them, they could sing songs about it to each other and pass the stories down in an oral tradition.  Joseph Toltz is a Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, where he focuses on the music of the Holocaust.  And in this specialized field, he’s heard it all.

"This was a beloved song that traveled around the entire Yiddish-speaking world, even to America and other places," he says.

Toltz is particularly impressed with the clarity of the Akron recordings from David Boder's wires.

"This is a technology which is 60-70 years old and completely outdated," he says.  "They’ve done it in such a way that has brought a completely new quality to the sound that is trapped inside these wire recordings."

"It’s a bit like hearing the voice of a ghost," muses Cummings Center director, David Baker.  "Here are voices that have been silent for 70 years, and all of the sudden, they’re singing.  And they’re singing to us."  

And they’re due to sing to an even larger audience.  The plan is for the Boder recordings to be featured in a special exhibit when a new National Museum of Psychology opens on the Akron campus, later this year. 

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