How a chance discovery let us listen to these Holocaust refugees' songs one more time.

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.

A group of young Holocaust survivors at a home in Hampshire, England, in late 1945. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.


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.

The new recorder mid-modernization. Image from The University of Akron.

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.

Most Shared

If you're a woman and you want to be a CEO, you should probably think about changing your name to "Jeffrey" or "Michael." Or possibly even "Michael Jeffreys" or "Jeffrey Michaels."

According to Fortune, last year, more men named Jeffrey and Michael became CEOs of America's top companies than women. A whopping total of one woman became a CEO, while two men named Jeffrey took the title, and two men named Michael moved into the C-suite as well.

The "New CEO Report" for 2018, which looks at new CEOS for the 250 largest S&P 500 companies, found that 23 people were appointed to the position of CEO. Only one of those 23 people was a woman. Michelle Gass, the new CEO of Kohl's, was the lone female on the list.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

How much of what we do is influenced by what we see on TV? When it comes to risky behavior, Netflix isn't taking any chances.

After receiving a lot of heat, the streaming platform is finally removing a controversial scenedepicting teen suicide in season one of "13 Reasons Why. The decision comes two years after the show's release after statistics reveal an uptick in teen suicide.

"As we prepare to launch season three later this summer, we've been mindful about the ongoing debate around the show. So on the advice of medical experts, including Dr. Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we've decided with creator Brian Yorkey and the producers to edit the scene in which Hannah takes her own life from season one," Netflix said in a statement, per The Hollywood Reporter.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture

At Trump's 'Social Media Summit' on Thursday, he bizarrely claimed Arnold Schwarzenegger had 'died' and he had witnessed said death. Wait, what?!


He didn't mean it literally - thank God. You can't be too sure! After all, he seemed to think that Frederick Douglass was still alive in February. More recently, he described a world in which the 1770s included airports. His laissez-faire approach to chronology is confusing, to say the least.

Keep Reading Show less
Democracy

Words matter. And they especially matter when we are talking about the safety and well-being of children.

While the #MeToo movement has shed light on sexual assault allegations that have long been swept under the rug, it has also brought to the forefront the language we use when discussing such cases. As a writer, I appreciate the importance of using varied wording, but it's vital we try to remain as accurate as possible in how we describe things.

There can be gray area in some topics, but some phrases being published by the media regarding sexual predation are not gray and need to be nixed completely—not only because they dilute the severity of the crime, but because they are simply inaccurate by definition.

One such phrase is "non-consensual sex with a minor." First of all, non-consensual sex is "rape" no matter who is involved. Second of all, most minors legally cannot consent to sex (the age of consent in the U.S. ranges by state from 16 to 18), so sex with a minor is almost always non-consensual by definition. Call it what it is—child rape or statutory rape, depending on circumstances—not "non-consensual sex."

Keep Reading Show less
Culture