The Holocaust’s First Historian - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Holocaust’s First Historian

The Holocaust’s First Historian

By Jack Doyle


Because one man tried to capture voices of the Holocaust before anyone else, and we still don’t know much about him.

By Jack Doyle

They 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. 

“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 kilometers from Aus– … from Auschwitz.”
“And Auschwitz is where?”
“In east Upper Silesia.”

This is a story we think we know, told by a woman named Nelly Bondy. Today, the names Auschwitz and Birkenau represent such absolute evil and despair that it seems almost blasphemous to ask these questions. But in 1946, few had heard of these places beyond those who’d survived to tell the tale.

The focus was more on building a new state and not lingering on what had just happened.

Ralph Pugh, archivist

Nelly was speaking to a man whose own name is all but lost to obscurity. David Boder, a Latvian Jew, was an unassuming academic who’d reinvented himself in the U.S. as a pioneering psychologist in the 1920s. Over the course of Boder’s career, his experiments and research turned toward the study of trauma, which brought him back to Europe in the aftermath of World War II.

Boder’s plan was to interview refugees who’d survived Nazi extermination. Because 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.

It took more than a year of determined fundraising before Boder headed to Europe as an archivist and scholar to record firsthand accounts. It hadn’t been easy, because in 1946 not many wanted to hear from survivors. “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 digitized versions of Boder’s interviews. While the Jewish community knew, Pugh says, the “focus was more on building a new state and not lingering on what had just happened.”

Homepage boder

David Boder did extensive interviews with people who’d been imprisoned in internment and extermination camps.

Source Illinois Institute of Technology

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

Boder begins his project as an academic would, asking formal questions and checking details with an almost cringeworthy 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. 

These interviews offer 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. But, with few exceptions, they 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.

Yet Boder’s work remained obscure for years. He 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 stories. 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, Pugh says, that the public started talking about the Holocaust. “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 digitized, 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 our collective consciousness.

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