Researchers Rebuild Old Tech to Play Lost Recordings of Holocaust Survivors


The main gate at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Image Credit: Michel Zacharz AKA Grippenn via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

In 1965, the University of Akron acquired a set of audio interviews with Holocaust survivors following World War II. Their historical significance was immense, but there was just one problem: The technology required to play them had become obsolete. Now, more than 70 years after they were recorded, Cleveland Jewish News reports that the university finally has a way to listen to them.

The recordings were made by David Boder, a Latvian-born U.S. psychologist who made it his mission to gather testimonies from Holocaust survivors while the event was still fresh in their minds. He used wire reels to record the audio, but by the 1960s the medium had been phased out by changing technology. What’s more, his own personal recorder, which was also given to the university, had broken down by that point.

With 48 of Boder’s wire spools in their possession and no way to hear the contents, a team from the University of Akron got to work making a player of their own about three years ago. They purchased a nonfunctional wire recorder from eBay and used that as their foundation. From there, the team updated the machine with modern components. “[…] some parts I found in my basement and some parts I found from other electronic suppliers,” James Newhall, project leader and Akron’s senior multimedia producer in instructional services, told Cleveland Jewish News.

The device was successfully tested for the first time in November 2016. With a functioning wire recorder, the researchers are now able to listen to and analyze the reels Boder left the university. (The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provided translations of the recordings.) Among the interviews are two pieces of music sung by Guta Frank, a Holocaust survivor who spoke with Boder at a refugee camp in France. The first song, titled “Our Village is Burning,” was commonly sung at German commemoration ceremonies. In the rediscovered recording, Frank can be heard changing the original lyrics from “our village is burning” to “the Jewish people are burning.”

The second song Frank sang for Boder was “Our Camp Stands at the Forest’s Edge.” This was an anthem the Nazis forced Jewish prisoners to sing at a labor camp in Poland, and while the lyrics have long been known, this is the first time researchers have heard the melody. After studying the recordings, the university eventually hopes to convert them into a digital archive. You can hear a clip of one of the recordings in the video below.

[h/t Cleveland Jewish News]