The Shoah's first historian is finally heard

  • Boder HOME
January 27 marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Today the name is ubiquitous, but, in 1946 few beyond those who had survived to tell the tale, had heard of it. But David Boder, an unassuming Latvian Jew who’d emigrated to the US and as a pioneer of psychology in the 1920s, spent that year, and the rest of his life, documenting the Shoah – even though his own name has got lost in the process!
by ANT KATZ | Jan 25, 2016

Writer Jack Doyle recounts an amazing side of the Shoah in “The Holocaust’s first historian” which was published on this month. Today the names Auschwitz and Birkenau represent such absolute evil and despair that it seems almost blasphemous to talk of them, he writes. But back in 1946 the focus was more on building a new state and not lingering on what had just happened.

“The Holocaust’s first historian” was one David Boder, a Latvian Jewish immigrant to the US who became an academic and reinvented himself as a psychologist who specialised in experimental research of the study of trauma.

Auschwitz-HOMEIt was, therefore, natural that he was to return to Europe in the aftermath of the Second  World War to interview survivors and document their stories.

RIGHT: The eerie entrance
to Auschwitz at sunset

His interview subjects are telling their stories for the first time. Often, you have to strain to hear what’s being said on the 70-year-old tapes: “The wire recording crackling perilously as if it could cut out at any time. Words swim in and out like a badly tuned radio, voices echo and screech. But the urgency of the words - and the silences and sobs that come in between - are all too clear,” writes Doyle.

Read this example of a snapshot from an interview about the story we think we know, but could never. It is being told by a woman named Nelly Bondy - and she is speaking to David Boder, a man whose own name is all but lost to obscurity.

“Well, we got into the camp. It was terrible. The first impression of the camp… it was Birkenau.”

“Oh, it was Birkenau. Yes… where is Birkenau?”

“Birkenau is some… some kilometres from Aus-… from Auschwitz.”

“And Auschwitz is where?”

“In east Upper Silesia.”

Boder Shoah16 full thin

Boder’s plan was to interview refugees (generally known at the time as Displaced Persons, or DPs) who’d survived Nazi extermination (the term “Holocaust” didn’t come into common usage until the 1960s). He and his interviewees didn’t yet have language for what had happened - and Boder, “fresh from his cushy university job in Chicago, had no clue of the scope awaiting him”, says Doyle.

Funds were hard to come by 

It took Boder more than a year of determined fundraising before the archivist and scholar could go to Europe to record first-hand accounts. It hadn’t been easy, because in 1946 not many wanted to hear what these survivors had to say.

“It was too recent of a memory, too recent of a hurt,” explains Ralph Pugh, an archivist with the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Voices of the Holocaust project, which houses digitised versions of Boder’s interviews.

While the Jewish community knew, Pugh says, their “focus was more on building a new state and not lingering on what had just happened”.

Boder David and recorder

LEFT: Boder preparing
a recording

But Boder was undeterred. He got there and did extensive interviews with people who’d been imprisoned in internment and extermination camps.

Over the course of two months, he interviewed 130 people: young and old, male and female, of many nationalities, but all DPs who had been held in internment and extermination camps. The interviews describe, in agonising detail, the experiences we associate today with the Holocaust, including death marches, mass executions, gas chambers, families separated and extinguished.

Boder began his project as any academic would, by asking formal questions and checking details with an almost cringe-worthy precision.

But as interviewees relive the horrors, Boder’s tone lightens. He offers them cigarettes and makes little jokes. In one interview, a woman catches herself making a painful mistake - “I have two children,” when the reality was “I had.” Boder pauses to let her collect herself. When he and his interviewee struggle with a shared language, he suggests they speak in their native tongue. “I’ll keep recording,” he says.


Important testimonies in human history

Jack Doyle describes Boder’s interviews as offering “a rare glimpse into a world where the concept of ‘Holocaust survivor’ did not exist. As a result, the stories are quite different from the ones we heard growing up. People struggle to find words for what has happened. They include details that seem unimportant,” writes Doyle.

Boder bookBut, with few exceptions, Boder’s subjects speak clearly and urgently. “It is here that Boder’s interviews go from a simple psychological study to some of the most important testimonies in human history,” writes Doyle.

RIGHT: Alan Rosen's book also failed to lift the profile of the groundbreaking work of Boder

Boder spent the rest of his career dedicated to disseminating his interviews, writing the book “I Did Not Interview the Dead” and taking eight years to revisit, translate and type 70 of the stories.

Yet Boder - and his work - remained obscure for years.

He sent copies to academic libraries, including Yale, Princeton and Harvard. But it wasn’t until the capture and televised trial of infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann in 1961 that the public started talking about the Holocaust, says Pugh.

“It took the Eichmann trial to capture the public imagination about the scope of the ‘final solution’,” he explains. “Ironically - and tragically - Boder died before the trial.”

Pugh notes that despite all of Boder’s work, it took 1960s television to help the reality of what had happened sink in.

Incredibly, Boder’s interviews were not fully digitised, translated and transcribed until 2010!

Scholars, writers, psychologists and academics now study the interviewees’ words. Together, the interviews tell a brutal story - “people’s inhumanity to people”, as Pugh puts it simply.

But as voices of survivors fade, they also offer a vivid reminder of a genocide that has shaped us as Jews, and the world’s collective consciousness.

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