Voices of the Holocaust

In the aftermath of the Second World War, an American academic toured Europe to record the stories of those who lived through the Holocaust. Mark Burman relates the poignant and often upsetting stories he found there

Russian and Polish women liberated from a forced labour camp

This article was first published in the January 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Wiesbaden, Germany, late September 1946. It was the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Judgement Day. The day the Lord records the deeds of the righteous, the wicked and the rest of us. But inside the war-damaged and newly reconsecrated synagogue, a different kind of recording was taking place, one intended not for divine judgement but for the edification of the American public.

Here sat a 59-year-old academic with 27kg of recording equipment by his side, including a state-of-the-art wire recorder. Three months earlier David Boder had left the comforts of his university in Chicago to heave his bulky machine and over 200 wire spools across a broken Europe. His intention was to record the immediate experiences of trauma from ‘Displaced Persons’.

More than a hundred had already shared their lives with him by this point; civilian survivors of Nazi terror. Boder began in relative ignorance but by now had heard so much that he had assembled inside his head a topography of terror like some great, mournful jigsaw.

This interview is one of the final pieces. For the past hour, a young woman by the name of Anna Kovitzka had been telling her tale of survival and loss in Yiddish – one of the nine languages that Boder spoke. Broken by bouts of sobbing throughout, her tragic narrative was drawing to a close.

“Now I am working… in a kindergarten. There are 20 little Jewish children. And I play with them, and then I forget about all that [my past]. Again I have around me Jewish children. But after work, to come alone to my room… Today is a holiday. Where are all mine, who used to celebrate the holidays with me? … But my people are no more. I am alone.”

Boder assembled inside his head a topography of terror like some great, mournful jigsaw

She gives a little half sob and her voice trails off, lost in the gathering gloom of an autumn afternoon. You can sense Boder drawing himself up, nervous, exhausted, knowing it’s time to go but left with a young woman whose painful memories are raw, open wounds.

Anna’s war began in September 1939 and never stopped. First the German bombs began falling on her home town of Kielce, Poland, followed by a never-ending process of round-ups, ghettos, labour camps, death marches and finally liberation on 1 April 1945 – ironically in the middle of Passover – by the American infantry. She had given up her baby to a Polish neighbour for safe-keeping, only to discover just months before the war’s end that the neighbour had been betrayed and her child murdered. Anna lost everything and everyone who mattered to her.

As the wire spool nears its end, Boder leans into the microphone, adding in his deeply accented English: “We have to conclude… what we have heard from this woman… is about a story what we have heard from everybody… I am just in a trance after this woman’s report… Who is going to sit in judgment of all this, and who is going to judge my work? I am leaving tonight for Paris; the project is concluded.”

But Boder’s remarkable project was in reality only just beginning. It has been a lengthy process only now nearing its conclusion, long after his death in December 1961, with the full transcription and translation of all of his 1946 interviews for a website, the Voices of the Holocaust project. With the project’s completion, it is us who today can “sit in judgment” on his work, and it is nothing short of remarkable and overwhelming.

Raw emotions

Today, news cameras nosing through tent cities and the physical and human rubble of war and disaster are a familiar sight. But clicking on the Voices of the Holocaust project website – where you can hear Boder’s original recordings – is to be returned directly to the turmoil and barely understood tragedies at the end of the Second World War. These recordings represent the earliest known oral histories of the Holocaust, conducted before most had even begun processing and attempting to cope with their experiences.

The narratives are wrapped in the chaotic world around them, conducted in makeshift interview rooms in Displaced Persons camps or orphanages. Traffic noise bleeds through from the streets, people intrude, bicycles are wheeled out and the interviewees fumble uncertainly with the magic of technology that is capturing their story for the very first time.

For five years these people had been reduced to tattooed numbers, ‘untermenschen‘ (inferior people), processed and beaten masses, victims. Now Boder was asking them to simply tell their story since their war began.

Take 13-year-old Raisel ‘Rose’ Meltzak for instance, whose story resembles a fragment from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Little Raisel, hugging her knees, rocking back and forth and forever lost in the dark forest as Boder tries to manage her ragged account. Hunted, beaten and robbed by both the local Ukrainian population and those working for the Nazi occupiers, Rose watches her family disintegrate. Until, her father arrested, their possessions gone and her mother nearly hysterical, they lose her baby brother to hunger, his belly swollen and distended.

Meltzak: The brother was already dead. And my mother cried so much. In the forest there are many – how does one say it? – drzewa?

Boder: ‘Trees’.

Meltzak: Trees. So she began to do it so, with her head [she apparently demonstrates]. She had such bumps.

Boder: She beat herself…

Meltzak: Yes.

Boder: …against the trees?

Meltzak: Yes. And she cried so very much. She screamed. She could not bear it. After my brother died we… we buried him.

Boder: Who buried him?

Meltzak: I with the mother.

Listen to the file of Avram Kimmelmann, and the encounter is very different. Kimmelmann is a soul wise and scarred far beyond his 17 years. Calm, collected and confrontational, Kimmelmann was able to challenge the much older Boder to his very core.

Kimmelmann: I want to ask you here a question. Are the psychologists really so far advanced that they really know human nature so well, that they really can ‘imagine’ the various human qualities?

Boder: Absolutely no.

Kimmelmann: You are entirely right. I didn’t ask you simply because I wanted to know, because I know it already. I just wanted to hear it from you. Because after all that what I have seen, I know that one knows nothing yet.

Certainly, what Boder knew before he began his remarkable project was limited to what he had seen on the newsreels: skeletal survivors staggering in front of the camera upon liberation, or newspaper accounts by Allied combat correspondents encountering the camps.

By the time he talked to Kimmelmann, he was becoming painfully aware of the geography and process of annihilation. Throughout he had been asking questions of his subjects. Where is Birkenau? How could any SS guard beat you? Were you paid for your labour? Which way would the women and children go to the gas? How could you run so fast after being cooped up in a cattle truck?

Young Kimmelmann had just detailed the collaboration of the Jewish police in the round-up process, explaining how it is possible for a starving person to consume 15 litres of soup spilled onto a floor. Now he describes, in the mangled German he has learnt in the camps, the way a man loses hope and life on a death march. “A man full of his senses, in whom everything is still functioning, he is feeble and can’t run any more, he stands by himself under a tree, his eyes shining like, like reflectors. And he waits for the moment when the whole formation will have passed by, ’til the hindmost guards will arrive with the block leader, also an SS man, who will shoot him. Can you imagine what this is? A man with his full mental abilities, who knows what is going on and he waits for death.”

Overwhelming task

Boder’s original intention had been to interview survivors, perpetrators and local Germans who had lived near the various camps. But he was swiftly overwhelmed by the sheer scale and mechanical process of annihilation that was being recounted to him by so many Jewish survivors in the wreckage of Europe.

It was a Europe Boder thought he had left behind long ago. He was no historian himself but a psychologist, a keen advocate of the new mind sciences. His own travels had taken him far from his roots in Libau, Latvia, where he was born in 1886. He had grown up in that multilingual twilight world of the tsar’s empire, with an education both secular and religious that gave way to a passion for the emerging discipline of psychology. A career spanning Europe, Japan and Mexico finally took him to Chicago, where he developed the psychology department of the Lewis Institute, now the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Boder wanted to increase the US public’s knowledge of what had happened

But what sent Boder on his remarkable expedition? The practice of recording patient interviews by both psychiatrists and analysts was already established. Boder’s institute had been involved with technological innovation for the war effort, giving him access to sophisticated, if bulky, wire recorders.

Oral history as a practice did not exist but Boder knew he wanted to preserve an immediate and authentic record of wartime suffering, as well as gathering data on trauma and its impact on personality. He also wanted to increase the American public’s knowledge of what had happened in Europe, and highlight America’s intransigent immigration policy, then still operating at prewar levels, to allow the hundreds of thousands of Displaced Persons to begin a new life.

From the first days of peace he began to work his way through the endless bureaucratic processes of getting himself out to Allied-occupied western Europe. It took him 14 months to raise funds – mortgaging his house in the process – and convince the relevant authorities of the veracity and worth of a project that must have been hard for them to grasp. He finally sailed for Europe in late July 1946 aboard the USS Brazil, which also carried delegates for the Paris Peace Conference.

Boder had no formal questionnaire and no definite idea of who to talk to – only his training in clinical interviewing and his multilingual, nuanced understanding of east Europe’s fault lines. He travelled across France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany, visiting smaller Displaced Persons hostels or orphanages and asking for people who wished to share their accounts. He avoided those who wanted to read from a prepared script, and attempted to gather as broad a cross-section of experience as he could with the limited time, funds and spools available to him.

He wasn’t the only one asking questions. Both the authorities and the remnant of the Jewish communities were busily gathering facts, names and places. But Boder wanted people to simply tell him about their lives for the last five years.

In one of his most powerful and shocking interviews, Boder turns to the microphone to indicate the scars on the tongue of his subject, Benjamin Piskorz – the result of a nail being driven through it by his SS torturers. Piskorz is a clearly disturbed young man who fought in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto, watched his mother burnt in front of him and eventually escaped, disguised as a German soldier. In a never-changing monotone, Piskorz related horror after horror to Boder, including his own acts of horrific and murderous revenge against German children.

A different world

Understandably, the trip changed Boder. On his return to Chicago he struggled to transcribe and use the interviews while faced with the normality of teaching and lecturing. He made contact with the relatives of some of those he interviewed, playing back their voices. The book that followed, I Did Not Interview the Dead (University of Illinois Press, 1949), presented eight of the interviews. Altogether 70 interviews would eventually be published as Boder continued to write lengthy academic articles in psychological publications detailing his psychological concerns with trauma, language and comparative catastrophe.

But ill health dogged him, perhaps due to the massive efforts this far from young and fit man had made struggling across Europe with his bulky recording equipment, and the efforts to promote these narratives back in the USA. He died of a heart attack in 1961.

What happened thereafter is confusing, elusive and goes some way towards explaining the failure of oral and Holocaust historians to have drawn upon his remarkable archive any sooner. The original recordings were lost, although copies were sent both to Israel and the Library of Congress in Washington DC. His old alma mater, the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, effectively forgot about them until very recently. Only now have the surviving interviews undergone a major upgrade and can be heard and accompanied by time-matched transcripts in either English or their original language.

Oral histories with survivors of the Holocaust chiefly began in the 1950s and there are now tens of thousands of interviews, both video and audio. Archives have been collected at Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, the British Library’s collection of National Life Stories in London and the Spielberg-backed University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute, and can all be accessed online.

But Boder’s recordings, conducted so soon after the war, remain unique and utterly absorbing. To hear them is to once again enter a room somewhere in Europe as a young man or woman leans forward and, for the first time, shares a life that for five years has been shattered, and for this wise and gentle interviewer to accumulate another fragment in his terrible mosaic.


The CV

NAME: David Boder (born Aron Mendel Michelson)

BORN: 9 November 1886, Libau, Latvia

EARLY EDUCATION: Elementary Jewish school in Libau, then Jewish Teachers’ Institute in Vilna, Lithuania

LATER EDUCATION: Under Wilhelm Wundt at Leipzig, Germany, then at Vladimir Bekhterev’s PsychoNeurological Institute, St Petersburg, Russia

KEY MOMENTS:

1907: Marries Pauline Ivianski and has a daughter, Elena. They divorce soon after

1917: Now working in Omsk, Siberia, he marries Nadejda Chernik

1919: Flees to Japan, then Mexico to escape the Russian Civil War. Nadejda dies in the Mexican flu epidemic

1925: Marries Russianborn American, Dora Neveloff. Becomes US citizen in 1932

1927–34: Psychology MA from University of Chicago, and PhD from Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

Mid-1930s–early 1940s: Hired at Lewis Institute (later Illinois Institute of Technology) where he develops its psychology department, launches a psychology museum and works at Michael Reese hospital

1945: Begins working on his DP (Displaced Persons) project

1946: Sets sail for Europe on board USS Brazil to conduct interviews in France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany, across 16 interview sites

1949:I Did Not Interview the Dead is published by the University of Illinois Press. Boder suffers heart attack in November but recovers and self-publishes 70 transcripts between 1953 and 1957

1952: Retires from IIT for health reasons and moves to University of California

1954: Analytical essay of his DP work, ‘The Impact of Catastrophe’, published in The Journal of Psychology

18 December 1961: Dies of heart attack in Los Angeles, CA


Songs of death, songs of life

David Boder asked some of those he interviewed to sing to him. But why?

David Boder frequently began his interview sessions by asking a person or a group to sing a song, both to demonstrate his recording technology and in an attempt to put his subjects at ease. These songs had been sung either as acts of resistance, of solace, or to retain, even if only in verse, fragments of time, place and people. They detail life in the ghettoes, konzentration lagers and extermination camps or speak of the new lives that await, chiefly in Palestine, then almost unreachable under British mandate.

The songs are throaty, raw renditions. They have no musical accompaniment and are nearly all performed in Yiddish. Es Brent (It Is Burning) was written in 1938 by Mordechai Gerbertig following a pogrom in Poland; On a Heym, on a Dakh (Without a Home, Without a Roof) recounts how deportees wander lost through the night; while Dort in dem Lager (There in the Camp) is a haunting rendition of loneliness, suffering and the loss of family.

Forty or so of these songs have been digitally restored by the Voices of the Holocaust project although not all are available online as yet.


Holocaust Memorial Day

Individual nations and groups have held their own ceremonies in remembrance of victims of the Nazi era since the end of the Second World War.

But it wasn’t until 2005 that the United Nations General Assembly established an international memorial day. As well as commemoration, UN member states are encouraged to develop educational programmes about the Holocaust to ensure it is neither forgotten nor denied and to help prevent future genocides. They are also asked to preserve any sites that served as Nazi camps and prisons.

International Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year – the date on which the largest Nazi camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated in 1945 by Soviet troops. The day also commemorates those who have suffered as a result of subsequent genocides, particularly those in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

Mark Burman is an award-winning BBC radio feature-maker and a historical journalist. He covered David Boder’s interviews with Holocaust survivors on Archive Hour on Radio 4

Websites

The Illinois Institute of Technology’s Voices of the Holocaust website, where you can hear Boder’s interviews and read more about him http://voices.iit.edu 

The Jerusalem-based Holocaust martyrs’ and heroes’ remembrance authority site www.yadvashem.org

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The Spielberg Foundation’s USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s site http://college.usc.edu/vhi/