Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Who Shall Judge My Work? David P. Boder's 1946 Interviews of Holocaust Survivors

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Who Shall Judge My Work? David P. Boder's 1946 Interviews of Holocaust Survivors

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1946, psychology professor David P. Boder (1886-1961) of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) visited various displaced persons' camps in Western Europe to record the testimonies of Jews who had survived the Holocaust. For this purpose he brought along a wire recorder, a relatively-new invention of IIT's Armour Research Foundation. Over the course of the summer, Boder fulfilled his mission, interviewing over 120 survivors and nearly exhausting his supply of wire spools. Back in the U.S., Boder spent most of his remaining fifteen years translating and transcribing these interviews, for as wide a dissemination as he could manage given the resources and technologies available in that era.

Those are the simple facts--or, rather, the simplest facts one can posit about a story that began in complexity and which will continue to challenge humanity in its eternal quest to capture and communicate truth through the varied disciples of documentation and history. Certainly, the historical factuality of the Holocaust is accepted by the vast majority of those today who possess enough intellect, information, open-mindedness, and empathy. Unfortunately, there are also those who dispute the basic facts of this calamity--and, given that fact, the process of education cannot rest. In the late 1990s, IIT's Galvin Library created the first version of its "Voices of the Holocaust" web site, which provided Boder's English translations as well as audio clips from the minority of interviews that had been conducted in English. Such an initial effort, though limited, was a worthy endeavor. Participating staff members were called upon to re-type Boder's 1950s transcripts for web use and many were profoundly moved by what they read.

Then, in December 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad labeled the Holocaust a "myth." IIT Dean of Libraries Christopher Stewart then committed personnel and financial resources so that the remaining audio files could be posted to the site, along with transcriptions and translations that Boder had not been able to complete during his life. The vastly-improved and augmented website went live at the end of 2009. Given my "two hats" (an archival career coupled with a PhD. in modern European history) I was privileged to be a member of the core team that laid the groundwork for the new website in 2007-2009. However, my exceptionally-gifted colleague, Eben English, Galvin Library's then-Digital Services Librarian, logged many more hours on the project than I while supervising a battery of students and translators both on-site and remotely (some as far removed as Germany).

In the process of preparing the new website, I of course learned more about the Holocaust and Boder's career--and also about the changing usages of audio-recorded interviews since the 1940s. Those evolving usages have been determined by 1) changing goals and methodologies both in the media and in the social sciences; and, 2) by the changing technologies that have been available to those disciplines. In the remainder of this essay I will cover key elements of the larger narrative (the Holocaust and Boder's role in documenting it) but will also offer some thoughts and observations on the evolution of what is now commonly known as audio-recorded "oral history."

The Man Who Sat Behind the Microphone

It is important to know something about the man who sat behind the microphone: David P. Boder. Born in Lithuania in 1886 (when still a part of the Russian Empire), Boder was born Aron Mendel Michelsen in Libau (now Liepaja, Latvia), where his father worked in the Russian civil service. Right from birth, Boder straddled different worlds. Being Jewish in a deeply anti-Semitic empire presented the greatest potential challenge. But other cultural forces swirled around him as well. Russian was spoken in the classroom, but Boder's community normally used Yiddish or German.

In furtherance of his education, Boder (a name he did not assume until the 1920s) began a series of travels and relocations that took him to Vilna (now Lithuania); Leipzig, Germany; and New York in the summer of 1906. …

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