- The Wonder of Their Voices: The 1946 Holocaust Interviews of David Boder
In 1946 a psychology professor from the Illinois Institute of Technology, David Boder, arrived in Europe with cumbersome spools of wire and a sixty pound recorder to interview Jewish and non-Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. Long before the Yale Fortunoff Archive and the Spielberg Foundation began to videotape survivor testimony, Boder grasped the importance of getting first-hand interviews from survivors. In a little over two months in Europe—from July 29 until October 4—Boder carried out 130 interviews in nine languages.
As Alan Rosen points out in this magnificent account of a neglected pioneer of the study of testimony and trauma, Boder conducted some of the earliest, if not the earliest, audio interviews of Holocaust survivors. In addition to interviews, Boder also collected songs, and he used his wire recorder to good effect. Many survivors who were initially reluctant to speak to Boder were won over when they heard their songs played back. "The wonder of their voices" broke down some barriers and facilitated a critical meeting between a resourceful Jewish psychologist and survivors who had just emerged from the war and had not yet begun the struggle to rebuild their lives. Boder reached them at a critical time, when memories were still fresh.
Boder began the project for many reasons. As a psychologist he grasped how important it was to trace the impact of the disaster on the human personality. As a Jew he instinctively understood that his ancestral home was irretrievably destroyed, and he wanted to reach out to survivors. As an American, he wanted his fellow citizens to see Displaced Persons as individuals, not as an anonymous and threatening mass. Perhaps his work, he hoped, might help break down prejudices against opening America's doors. Unlike many Jews in the Displaced Persons camps, Boder was decidedly a universalist, not a Zionist.
His own background uniquely equipped him for his pioneering mission. He was a Latvian Jew who spanned the traditional culture of East European Jewry and the world of European and American social science. His early education included the Vilna Teacher's Seminary, a major incubator of the activist East European Jewish intelligentsia. He then moved to the famed Psychoneurological Institute in Saint Petersburg, founded by Vladimir Bekhterev. His Saint Petersburg years, 1906-1915, saw major attempts, centered in that city, to use history, folklore, and ethnography to create a modern, secular Jewish identity. It is not clear how closely Boder was acquainted with Simon Dubnow or Shlomo Rappoport (S. Ansky), who organized a famed expedition to the Jewish Pale to record songs, collect folklore, and conduct [End Page 397] interviews. Ansky's was a salient example of "rescue ethnography," the collection of information on a culture that was undergoing irretrievable change. It was a mission that would also motivate Boder, although in a different context and for different reasons.
Another major milestone in Boder's career was his arrival in the United States in 1926. He studied graduate psychology at the University of Chicago at a critical time: the development of sociological ethnography under the leadership of W. I. Thomas, Robert Parks, and Edward Brustein. This approach combined insights from sociology, anthropology, and psychology, and stressed the use of personal documents including autobiographies and interviews. Later Boder followed in the footsteps of other noted social scientists, including John Dollard and Gordon Allport. The centrality of the "personal document"—as opposed to largely quantitative and statistical sources —became a key component of Boder's approach: topical interviews that focused not on the entire life of the interviewees but on their specific experiences—in this case their experiences of war and trauma—to develop new insights based on extensive comparative analysis. The "personal document" derived not just from the information that the subject recounted but also from nuances of language, hesitations, silences, and when necessary, answers to questions posed by Boder himself.
Boder wanted interviews not only...