Lost songs of the Holocaust found in university archive

In 1946, a professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology traveled to Europe to interview scores of Jewish Holocaust survivors living in refugee camps. Using 200 spools of steel wire and a state-of-the-art spool recorder, Dr. David Boder recorded more than 130 survivors’ oral histories, religious services and some songs they were forced to sing in the concentration camps.

Since 1967, some of Boder’s recordings have been archived at the University of Akron’s Drs. Nicholas and Dorothy Cummings Center for the History of Psychology. It was there, when a project to digitize the recordings got underway, that technicians discovered a treasure: a spool of wire containing the “Henonville Songs.”

The survivors at a refugee camp in Henonville, France, sang the songs for Boder, but the spool of wire that held the songs was thought to have been lost — until the digitization project began and it was found in a mislabeled container.

“I think it is one of the most important discoveries from our collections in our 50-year history,” Dr. David Baker, the Margaret Clark Morgan Executive Director of the Cummings Center, said in a release.

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“The Nazis made the prisoners sing some of these songs as they ran to their forced labor sites and back each day.

“That we could give the world the melody to a song sung by those sentenced to their death through forced labor during one of the most unspeakable horrors of the 20th century is remarkable,” Baker said.

But it took some luck and ingenuity before anyone could hear the voices at all. The Cummings Center had several wire recorders, but it had none that were compatible with the one Boder used.

It took a year of searching before a multimedia producer at the university found the right device on eBay. She purchased it and donated it to the Cummings Center, but it was in poor condition and had to be rebuilt and redesigned — using modern components.

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“There was a lot of time spent on research and experimentation,” said James Newhall, a senior multimedia producer at Akron’s Instructional Services.

“The recorder no longer uses vacuum tubes or rubber tires and is mostly built from new parts. It has a more simple, and accurate, drive mechanism.”

Once the recorder was rebuilt, the producers could digitize the sound and share the recordings with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where the staff helped translate the German and Yiddish languages.

“It felt like I was helping in some way to bring these voices to the present, voices that had become somewhat lost to the historical record,” said Jon Endres, a multimedia producer/media specialist with the Cummings Center who converted the spools to digital.

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“The discovery of this single canister holding a lost recording means that these songs can be heard again, they can be studied and they can inform us in a new way about the experiences, the joys and the frustrations of these displaced persons.”

Added Baker: "These songs, in the voices of those subjected to unspeakable cruelty, are a reminder of the power of memory, the value of history and the indomitable human spirit.

“Hearing them sing again after 70 years of silence gives the world a greater understanding of the circumstances and experiences of those who were witnesses to a dark chapter in human history.”