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Post-Holocaust Testimony

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David Boder Interview with Helen Tichauer

Boder, David interview Tichauer 1946
Illinois Institute of Technology

In the summer of 1946, sociologist David Boder began what is arguably the first audio testimony project that sought primarily to preserve survivor histories.1 As such, David Boder's efforts stand out in several ways. While Boder was certainly not the first person to interview these survivors, he was the first to record them with audio equipment. Boder recorded the interview itself rather than recording the results of an interview like written testimonies and questionnaires did.

Boder's interviews were also among the first testimony projects to look at the psychological impact of the events in question. Boder used the so-called "trauma index" developed for Displaced Persons (DPs) rather than asking questions to produce evidence for a trial. This index "scored" the interviewee's traumatic experiences, which were then coded by color and number.2 

Finally, Boder interviewed survivors directly in the language of their choice instead of mediating their words through an interpreter. This allowed Boder to preserve the exchanges between interviewer and interviewee more directly. The result is not a finished, polished work of testimony, but rather an evolving conversation.

David Boder was a refugee, born in Libau (today Liepāja in Latvia) in 1886. He studied in Vilna, Leipzig, the United States, and St. Petersburg, where he earned a degree in psychology. Boder fought in the Russian army during World War I, and subsequently fled Russia during the 1917 revolution. He lived in Japan, Mexico, and eventually the United States, where he received a master's degree from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from Northwestern University.

During and after the war, Boder worked at Lewis University (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). Boder arrived at what he called the "happy idea" of interviewing Jewish DPs immediately upon the end of the war in May of 1945. While he had hoped to gain entrance to Germany immediately, his trip was delayed by a year in order to obtain the necessary approvals. In the end, Boder visited DP camps, job training facilities, children's homes, and refugee sites in Paris, Geneva, Munich, Italy, and Wiesbaden. He interviewed approximately 130 Jewish DPs.3

Boder's first interviews took place on July 29, 1946 in the ORT Training School in Paris.4 He describes these experiences in his book, I Did not Interview the Dead:

I would meet a colony of DPs in a particular shelter house for lunch or dinner. After the meal I would ask them to sing and, with their knowledge, I recorded the songs. When I played these back, the wonder of hearing their own voices recorded was boundless. Then I would explain my project and ask for volunteers. [...] When the selected individual appeared for the interview I would say, "We know very little in America about the things that happened to you in concentration camps. If you want to help us out by contributing information about the fate of the displaced persons, tell your own story."5

The interviews themselves were conducted in an informal and intimate setting. The interviews took place alone without prepared notes, and Boder would sit behind the speaker. When Boder translated the interviews, he did so orally with a stenographer recording his words. Boder did all of his own translations. His interviews were among the first to treat survivors as victims of trauma with their own individual stories to tell.

Boder sought to raise awareness among the American public regarding the plight of the Jewish Displaced Persons in Europe. Ultimately, his interviews aimed, in his words, "to gather personal reports in the form of wire recordings for future psychological and anthropological study." At the same time, he recognized that the stories he gathered were not, in the end, "the grimmest stories that could be told—I did not interview the dead."6

The featured interview with Helen Tichauer took place on September 23, 1946, in the Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp. Originally from Bratislava, Tichauer was deported to Auschwitz in March of 1942 together with 2,000 other unmarried women. Because of her early arrival, Tichauer was witness to the early construction of the camp extension at Birkenau. She was also in a unique position to observe the inner workings of the camp.7

Tichauer's testimony serves as a prime example of Boder's interviews. He introduces his subject in English, and the testimony in German follows. As we can hear, the wire recording technique presents several challenges, not the least of which is the quality of the recordings themselves. Boder's interview also raises questions about the method and function of these early interviews. What is the impact—and importance—of hearing the entire exchange between interviewer and survivor for the first time? What is the importance of the interview language? How might this choice shape the final product? How does Boder's interview technique bring out a different result than interviews conducted to gather legal evidence?

For an account of Boder's project, see Alan Rosen, The Wonder of Their Voices: The 1946 Holocaust Interviews of David Boder (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

David Boder, I Did Not Interview the Dead (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949), xvii-xix.

The Illinois Institute of Technology maintains a website entitled, Voices of the Holocaust, that preserves many (although not all) of these interviews. The original wire recordings are held by the Library of Congress.

ORT, known in English as the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training, was originally founded in Russia in 1880. The organization continues to operate today in the United States and many places around the world.

Boder, I Did Not Interview the Dead, xii.

Boder, I Did Not Interview the Dead, xiv-xix. Boder's method and resulting testimonies are further analyzed and complicated in Alan Rosen, The Wonder of Their Voices: The 1946 Holocaust Interviews (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

The multifacted nature of Tichauer's position—and her story—is chronicled in the Jürgen Matthäus, ed., Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor: Holocaust Testimony and its Transformations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

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A complete transcript and translation of Helen Tichauer's interview can be found here

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Illinois Institute of Technology
Date of Interview
September 23, 1946
Duration 00:44:50
Helena Tichauer
David Boder
Feldafing, Germany
Reference Location
Czechoslovakia (historical)
Interview Type Interview
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