David Boder carried with him a state-of-the-art wire voice recorder and 200 spools of steel wire tape. It was all he needed to capture the voices of an entire people.
It was July 1946 and Boder, an American psychology professor, was on a boat headed to a Western Europe that was just beginning to recover from World War II. He was going there to talk to refugees and Holocaust survivors.
The year before, as the Allies advanced through Nazi territory, they freed prisoners from the concentration camps. Though technically free, many of the prisoners did not have homes to return to, and instead they ended up in refugee camps throughout Europe.
Boder had a few simple goals. His mission was academic — recording how living through something like the Holocaust changes someone’s personality — but it was also humanitarian. He wanted to help preserve these people’s oral histories.
By giving them a voice, Boder, an immigrant himself, hoped his recordings would encourage Americans to accept Jewish immigrants.
Boder worked at an incredible pace for the rest of the summer, traveling to four different countries and interviewing at least 130 different people. Toward the end of his journey, he was interviewing as many as nine people a day, recording not just their stories, but also religious services and songs.
He used up every single inch of wire.
Since 1967, researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio have been the keepers of a portion of Boder’s spools. Recently, they decided to digitize their collection.
Most of Boder’s work has survived to the present day, but one of his spools, known as the Henonville songs (named after the refugee camp in France where they were recorded) had long since disappeared. People assumed it had been lost to time.
But as researchers at the university’s Cummings Center for the History of Psychology were going through their archives, they discovered that one particular canister had been mislabelled. The Henonville songs were rediscovered.
Getting the songs off the spool wasn’t easy. It would take more than a year.
Though the university had a number of wire voice recorders, none of them would work with the spool. Producer James Newhall finally found a compatible model through coworker Litsa Varonis, who spotted one on eBay and got her husband to fix it up.
Even then, it took considerable tweaking to get things right. In the end, they were able to revive the lost recording.
“That we could give the world the melody to a song sung by those sentenced to their death … is remarkable,” said the Cummings Center’s Dr. David Baker.
The discovery of these songs was shared with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which now has a digitized copy of the spool for its collection. You can listen to some of the lost Henonville songs below.
“Fraytik oyf der Nakht (Friday at Night)”
This song was performed in Yiddish by Yuel Prizant. In it, the singer reminisces about their family coming together the night before the Sabbath. A version of the song, with lyrics and a translation, is available here.
“Undzer Shtetl Brent (Our Village Is Burning)”
This song was sung in Yiddish by Gita Frank. At the beginning of the recording, she says that the composer’s daughter would sing it in the cellars of the ghetto in Krakow, Poland, to inspire resistance against the Germans. Both the composer and daughter were later killed.
Frank also tweaks the song’s original refrain from “our village is burning” to “the Jewish people are burning.” The original song’s full translated lyrics are available here.
“Unser Lager Steht am Waldesrande (Our Camp Stands at the Forest’s Edge)”
This recording, also by Gita Frank, is a German rendition of the “anthem” of the Brande forced labor camp, where about 800 Polish Jews were forced to build the Reichsautobahn, or highway system.
It was common for Nazi administrators to make prisoners sing songs as they worked or moved.
In the song, Frank sings about how the camp stands at the edge of a proud, snowy forest. In the morning, various companies of men march to the build site (the Brande camp had both male and female prisoners). At night, a guard stands watch.
A version of this song’s lyrics in German is available here.
Songs were provided by and used with permission of the University of Akron’s Cummings Center for the History of Psychology.