Today (27th January) is Holocaust Memorial Day. This date was chosen as it is the anniversary of the day in 1945 on which the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp. This year is the 65th anniversary of that liberation, and the theme for 2010’s Memorial Day is “The Legacy of Hope“.
BBC History Magazine Jan 2010 issue included an article by Mark Burman on the work of David Boder (born Aron Mendel Michelson, 1886-1961), an academic then at Chicago who during 1946 recorded the immediate experiences of trauma from ‘Displaced Persons’. His recordings are now available on the Voices of the Holocaust website – the earliest known oral histories of the Holocaust, made before most people had begun to deal with their experiences.
The narratives are wrapped in the chaotic world around them, conducted in makeshift interview rooms in Displaced Persons camps or orphanages. Traffic noise bleeds through from the streets, people intrude, bicycles are wheeled out and the interviewees fumble uncertainly with the magic of technology that is capturing their story for the very first time…
…Boder’s recordings, conducted so soon after the war, remain unique and utterly absorbing. to hear them is to once again enter a room somewhere in Europe as a young man or woman leans forward and, for the first time, shares a life that for five years has been shattered, and for this wise and gentle interviewer to accumulate another fragment in his terrible mosaic.
Boder himself had been a refugee, fleeing the Russian civil war in 1919 via Japan and Mexico and losing his second wife in the Mexican flu epidemic. He spoke nine languages. His training in clinical interviewing and “his multilingual, nuanced understanding of east Europe’s fault lines” made him perhaps uniquely qualified for the task. He mortgaged his house to fund his project. He wanted to increase the knowledge of the American public of what had happened in Europe and to highlight America’s intransigent immigration policy, at that time still operating at pre-war levels. He sounds to have been a fascinating man even without his enormous contribution to the history and understanding of the Holocaust.
I was profoundly moved by reading this article, and even more so listening to some of the interviews, particular the songs (Boder often began interview sessions by asking a person/group to sing a song – both to demonstrate the recording technology and to put them at their ease). The website, by the way, is brilliant – many congratulations to the Illinois Institute of Technology, I especially like the transcript/audio link.
And it got me thinking too in the context of the need to recognise and to deal with the oral traditions of communities, as discussed at CITRA last November. Who is recording the oral testimonies about the genocides or mass killing campaigns of my lifetime: Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina? what does it mean to the world if they are lost?