Recorded words of Holocaust survivors discovered, revived

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AKRON, Ohio-- In 1946, noted psychologist David Boder traveled to post-war France where he interviewed more than 100 Holocaust survivors, recording their testimonials to better understand the impact of extreme suffering.

They are considered to be among the earliest recordings made of Holocaust survivors.
Most of his work eventually made its way to the Library of Congress, but a large part of it, including 48 reels of recordings made by Boder, was also donated to the University of Akron's Center for the History of Psychology in the 1960s.

For his interviews Boder used a device that records the sounds on a thin metal wire which no longer exist.

The University says when they tried to find one that was still working they couldn't.

"We knew a little bit about it. We knew a little bit about what was on those reels. Some of them had writing on them. The issue was we had no way to play them," said David Baker, the executive director of the center.

"Scholars who came to work and do research on the Boder material here said there is a missing reel. Boder talked about in 1946 recording songs sung to him by Holocaust survivors at a refugee camp in France but we had no way of knowing. We thought maybe they are in this box, but we had no way to play the reel so we had no way of knowing that," said Baker.

"We knew there was a possibility that this lost spool might be there just because the Library of Congress has already digitized all of their Boder collection in the 1990s and they were unable to find it," said Jon Endres, the center's media specialist.

Baker says interest in the reels surfaced from time to time but with no way to play them they stayed stored in a box for 50 years, until James Newhall, the senior milti-media producer in Instructional Services at the University started piecing together a device so they they could once again be played.

"Part of the motivation is to problem solve and come up with a solution, and I really wanted to hear these recordings; I really found it fascinating that we had these recordings in the collection and we couldn't listen to them," said Newhall.

After two years of working on the project, Newhall's creation has finally been able to resurrect voices that have been silent for more than a half a century; songs and voices that are already teaching historians things they never knew.

One of the songs is called "Our Village is Burning" sung by a refugee from Poland who ended up in a Nazi forced labor camp.

From her introduction of the song on the reel, historians have learned that the song was sung by the composer's daughter in the Krakow Ghetto to inspire the people to rebel against the Nazis.

The voices are stirring.

"I think for all of us it was a powerful moment; it remains a powerful moment. I think anyone that listens to those would agree that it's very meaningful to hear someone singing to you- from a displaced person's camp to hear a Holocaust survivor singing to you from 70 years ago; a song, a voice that was considered lost to history," said Baker.

Another song was one in which the lyrics were familiar to historians who, until now, had never heard it put to a melody, according to Baker.

"The Center for the History of Psychology contains the largest collection of its kind in the world.

"We have a vast, vast collection of materials in psychology, many treasures. I would say in my 17 years here that this is the most important discovery, certainly that I have made and I would say it's one of the most important discoveries in our 51 years of history," said Baker.

The center has already shared the recordings with the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

The recordings aside, the machine that the University has created to play the reels may now be one of the only working players of its kind in the world.

Technicians at the University of Akron believe they can also now use it to help others listen to similar wire recordings on which they may have felt the voices there had been lost forever.