Researchers at the University of Akron unveiled “lost” songs recorded in 1946 from Holocaust survivors at displaced persons camps following World War II, thanks to a newly developed wire recorder and a partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Presenting the tapes to media on Feb. 2, a team of researchers at the Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology at Akron discussed the history behind the tapes, why obsolete technology made them inaccessible for 70 years, and the new information that was uncovered upon listening.
David Boder was a Latvia-born psychologist who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s. As a trauma researcher, Boder, following World War II interviewed concentration camp survivors at displaced persons camps across Europe, which he recorded on wire reels. In 1965, the University of Akron started Archives of the History of American Psychology and acquired Boder’s materials (he died in 1961), but because of technology changes, they no longer had a player for the reels. Boder’s recorder, which the University of Akron still has, no longer worked and they were nearly obsolete.
“We basically had the wire spools but we did not know what was on a number of them,” said David Baker, executive director of the Center for the History of Psychology at Akron. “More importantly, we had no way to play them.”
In addition, it was well known among researchers that there was a missing tape of Boder’s that could not be found by researchers anywhere, and since there were no wire recorders, there was no way to identify it if it was found.
“Amongst other things, there were interviews with survivors, but he also had recorded Yiddish folk music (and) religious ceremonies. Some of those were deposited at the Library of Congress, but there was a missing reel, and this was songs sung, they believed, at the refugee camps in France,” Baker said, who had been interested in the tapes since he started working at the university in 1999.
About three years ago, a team led by James Newhall, senior multimedia producer in instructional services at Akron, started finding parts and building the recorder to eventually play the tapes. Unlike Boder’s original recorder, the team outfitted theirs with solid-state technology and other new features.
“The machine has been modified with modern electronics, with some parts I found in my basement and some parts I found from other electronic suppliers,” Newhall said.
Finally last November, it was time to test it. Jon Endres, multimedia producer/media specialist at the history of psychology center at Akron, was the one to place the wire reels on the recorder.
“It was kind of terrifying doing these, (the wires) break pretty easily (and) get tangled up,” Endres said.
However, not only did the recorder work, but Endres soon found that they also had the “missing” tapes from Boder’s interviews at the refugee camp in France, which had been located in a mislabeled canister at the center. Endres was the first person to hear them.
“For me more than anything else, being the first person to hear this stuff in 70 years was the biggest highlight of my job so far,” he said. “I took two years of German in high school and don’t know it really well, but when you hear some of the interviews and some of the songs, you just recognized some of the words, and even that small understanding of what they are talking and singing about is extremely powerful.”
Endres immediately contacted the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and within a week they sent back translations of the recordings.
Among the 48 reels found, which Akron researchers have not finished analyzing, two were found to contain music and also provide new historical information about the songs and the survivors’ experiences. The two songs were sung by a woman who was identified by the Holocaust museum as Guta Frank, who survived several Polish ghettos and at least two concentration camps, to arrive at the refugee camp in France and be interviewed by Boder.
The first recording is the song “Our Village is Burning,” which the Holocaust museum said was a common staple of German commemoration ceremonies. According to Frank’s introduction on the tape, the composer’s daughter would sing it in the basement of the Krakow ghetto to rebel against the Nazis.
“Frank also significantly changed the song’s original refrain from ‘Our Village is Burning’ to ‘the Jewish people are burning,’” Baker said.
The second song sung by Frank was “Our Camp Stands at the Forest’s Edge,” which was an anthem the Nazis made Jewish prisoners sing at a labor camp in Poland.
“What’s truly significant about that is the Holocaust museum said the lyrics to this forced labor camp anthem were known, but this was to their knowledge, the first time the melody of that song had been heard,” Baker said.
“I found that powerful and moving – we all do. To listen to those voices singing to us some 70 years after the fact is a very powerful discovery and part of the reason we want to share that.”
Despite already uncovering a piece of history that was thought to be lost, the Akron researchers are not done. In addition to analyzing the rest of Boder’s tapes and potentially creating a dedicated digital archive of his material, they also are working on a larger collaboration with the Holocaust museum as a result. Moreover, they plan to digitize all the content of the tapes – which is likely to relay further information to better understand what was in the minds of concentration camp survivors just after the war.
“History needs to come out of the light, particularly right now,” Endres said. “For me, that’s the main thing, the importance of understanding what hasn’t been heard in so long. Knowing it informs on the history of the Holocaust and the Jewish people is just extremely important.”