Music of the Holocaust: Highlights from the Collection

Songs of the ghettos, concentration camps, and World War II partisan outposts

Songs of Jewish Displaced Persons


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Dr. David Boder preparing to record a survivor interview.  Europe, summer 1946.
Dr. David Boder preparing to record a survivor interview. Europe, summer 1946.
David Boder Collection/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
David Boder collection

The psychologist and teacher David Boder was born in Liyepaya, Russia (present-day Liepaja, Latvia), in 1886. Educated in Leipzig and St. Petersburg, he left Russia in the wake of the Revolution and the Civil War, and after a six-year sojourn in Mexico settled in Chicago, where he completed his doctorate at Northwestern University. Toward the end of World War II, while employed as a psychology professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Boder initiated a project to collect testimony from victims of Nazi persecution. Urging that this testimony be documented while still fresh in memory, he also insisted—uniquely for his time—that the survivors tell their stories in their own voices. After months of petitioning and delays, Boder received a small grant and a steel-wire recorder (a precurser of the magnetic tape recorder), and set off for liberated Europe.

Between July and October, 1946, Boder recorded 109 interviews in Displaced Persons Camps in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. He then returned to the United States, eager to analyze and report on his findings. Yet the book he published in 1949, I Did Not Interview the Dead, never generated much attention from the academy or the general public. In 1952, Boder moved to Los Angeles, continuing his work in semi-obscurity as a research psychologist at UCLA. After his death in 1961, the nearly 200 wire spools of historic testimony Boder had brought back from Europe were neglected, then forgotten. It was only in 1995 that the recordings, long deposited at the Library of Congress, were transferred to tape. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum obtained its copies in 1998.

During interview sessions, Dr. Boder often asked his informants to sing. For him, this was both an important part of documenting a story and a practical means of summoning up associative memories. While song collecting may have been secondary to Boder's larger goal of gathering survivor narratives, his field recordings preserve a number of otherwise unknown songs from the ghettos, concentration camps and Displaced Persons Camps. His recordings—predating by ten years the first oral history projects attempted by Yad Vashem—are among the most immediate and compelling of Holocaust eyewitness testimony, and the songs interspersed among his interviews are a significant addition to the repertoire of music related to the Shoah.

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