Though the actual number of people killed during the state-sponsored mass murder perpetrated by the Nazi regime is still hotly debated, there seems little question that as many as six million Jews died in what came to be known as the Holocaust (a.k.a. Shoah). Adding in the mass murder of Romani, the disabled, homosexuals, and various other persecuted minorities, the total death toll was likely over ten million although the full extent of people killed, much as with the Jewish fatalities, may never be known for certain.
With the end of World War 2, the heartbreaking task of documenting the full extent of the death toll and providing justice for the victims began. While forensic analysis and interrogation of Nazi perpetrators provided some information for investigators, the principal source of the testimony provided in the Nuremberg trials came from the survivors themselves. In dealing with these traumatized survivors, interviewers faced the task of obtaining evidence that could be used to prosecute the Nazis who directed the Holocaust as well as creating a permanent record to be preserved for posterity. Many holocaust survivors would eventually provide their own accounts but they would not become available until decades afterward.
Since time has a way of distorting memories, the most valuable accounts of the Holocaust came from oral statements from victims in the months following the liberation of the death camps. Many of these oral statements came from a series of interviews by American psychologist, David Pablo Boder. While the interviews that Dr. Boder collected are now considered to be a cornerstone of Holocaust studies, the project he carried out faced enormous obstacles that very nearly derailed his research before it could even start.
Born in 1886 in Liepaga, Russia (now part of Latvia), David Boder was educated at the Psychoneurological Institute in Moscow before World War I. After the subsequent Russian Revolution forced him to flee to North America with his wife and family, he taught at the University of Mexico before emigrating to the United States in 1926. Finishing a master's degree at the University of Chicago and a doctorate at Northwestern University, Dr. Boder earned a position at the Lewis Institute in Chicago (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). As the founder and directory of the Psychological Museum there, he presided over an active research career studying the psychology of language.
Exactly why he would decide to undertake a project interviewing Holocaust victims is an intriguing question. He had no living relatives in Europe at the time that World War 2 broke out so he was not directly affected by the genocide in the same way that so many of his friends and colleagues were. Though fluent in German, Yiddish and a number of other European languages, he had no special qualification for the ambitious task he laid out for himself. There was also the fact that his project was almost entirely self-funded (all requests for research grants had fallen through) and he was on a sabbatical at the time.
Securing permission to travel to Europe was another major task for him as well. Though the war was over, many of the occupied and liberated zones were still under military control and he needed to get clearance from the State Department before he could travel. By the time he got the necessary permission, his sabbatical was nearly complete and the university president refused to grant him an extension. Despite these delays, he managed to reach Paris equipped with a special wire recorder that had been developed by a fellow professor (relatively high-tech for the time).
Any of you who are into podcasting or other audio work know how essential it is to control for background noise while recording interviews. Imagine then what poor David Boder had to face in the various refugee camps he visited as he collected interviews with Holocaust survivors. Most of the refugee interviews that he conducted were carried out in storage rooms, administrative offices, or whatever space that he could arrange.
There was also the problem of providing his interviewees with the privacy they needed to tell their stories in peace. With other refugees listening in and, at times, demanding to tell their stories as well, establishing the necessary rapport to draw out traumatized survivors seemed impossible. There were also problems with his still-experimental recorder which required electricity that was often hard to find in refugee camps.
Despite these difficulties, Boder managed to interview more than one hundred refugees at camps in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy over a two-month period. Though the majority of the survivors interviewed were Jewish, he was emphatic in stating that his research was not focused on Jewish suffering alone. He also avoided interviewing people with unusual or extraordinary stories. "I wanted the rank and file experience-- not the unusual story," he would later state. "I would limit my stay to about two days in one place, partly because the narratives would begin to show signs of preparation and lose their spontaneity, and partly because of the desire to record the experiences of individuals in many and dissimilar groups."
The interviews were remarkable in that they were completely non-directive with no prearranged set of questions. He basically just asked them to describe their lives before the war and let them tell their stories as best they could. Boder even sat behind the people he was interviewing as they spoke to ensure that his facial expression did not influence them in any way. As an interview strategy, it worked amazingly well. The interviews often lasted for hours with little if any prompting from Boder himself.
Once the interviews were collected and he was safely back in Chicago, David Boder was left with the task of transcribing and publishing the interviews he had collected. He finally managed to get funding from the United States National Health Service and transcribed seventy of his most important interviews. Copies of these interviews were stored on mimeograph and microfiche for posterity and deposited in research libraries across the United States.
Actual publication was another matter though. Though he tried to interest different publishers, Boder was repeatedly told that there was no market for yet another book describing Nazi atrocities. Being able to provide first-hand interviews of actual Holocaust survivors was not a selling point given the horrific revelations that had already come out of the Nuremberg trials.
Eventually, he managed to convince the University of Illinois Press to publish eight of the interviews. The book, I Did Not Interview The Dead, was released in 1949 but was not a commercial success. Despite winning a graphics award for artistic design, sales were so poor that the publisher refused to do a reprint. No other publisher would agree to a follow-up books and most of the interviews collected in Dr. Boder's project remained in limbo until after his death in 1961.
The lack of interest in David Boder's research project largely tallied with what Holocaust survivors were discovering for themselves. Many survivors who emigrated to other countries found that public interest in the Holocaust waned in the years following the end of the Nuremberg trials. The world seemed more interested in other matters and Nazi war crimes were regarded as ancient history.
The turnaround only began with the capture of Adolf Eichmann by Mossad agents in 1960. News of his arrest and subsequent trial helped revive interest in the Holocaust and many victims finally came forward with their own stories of what had happened. Unfortunately, time has a way of distotring memories and the long delay meant that vital details could be forgotten or exaggerated.
It also meant that critics could challenge the reliability of the various eyewitness accounts on the grounds that accounts can become less accurate because of frequent repetition (a common problem with eyewitness testimony in forensic settings). All of which made David Boder's research project so important. While the Yad Vashem project would begin in 1953 as an official Holocaust memorial, the oral recollections that Dr. Boder collected were virtually unique since they were gathered immediately after the war while victim memories were still fresh.
Virtually forgotten at the time of his death, David P. Boder's research is now a valuable resource for Holocaust scholars with many of his recordings and transcripts available online. His work also marks him as a pioneer in psychological field research and the value of first-hand observation in preserving oral history for posterity.