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David Boder: the man who came, saw and listened for himself

At the end of the war, when the Allies found out about the atrocities committed by the Nazis in occupied Europe, General D. Eisenhower invited the American press to come and see what had happened there: they should have seen for themselves what the  Nazi ideology had brought about. The title of this paper is related to the words he said at that time and to the man who felt the urgence to come, see and listen to the testimonies of the survivors. 

After the liberation of the camps, many pictures were taken then, several  footages were shot which showed the images of thousands of corpses, emaciated and sick  prisoners, living skeletons who were lying in the barracks or could  hardly  walk. These images, which have become  widely known since then, were voiceless, though. What the American and part of European public opinion could realize watching them were the effects  of an inhuman policy, which seemed to be over, because  the war had ended. Of course this was not the case: the Holocaust had affected people  not only from a physical point of view, which paradoxically  was the easiest to be treated, but also from a psychological and social one. The immediate  emotional impact of the images of Dachau, Bergen Belsen, Birkenau, on the world’s public opinion was so strong that apparently there was no room left for any further reflection at that time. The immediate needs and the will to build a better future  were, in most  cases,  stronger than the will to deeper the recent traumatic past. 

David Boder
David Boder

Nevertheless, the past was still there: hundreds of thousands of displaced people, broken in their  spirits and in their bodies, rootless, lived in shelters or in the Camps set up by the international organizations, waiting for Visas or trying to understand what to do with what was left of their lives. The effects of the Holocaust were still there in terms of an international refugee crisis which had to be solved: the traumas the victims had endured during the war became double. The images couldn't show to the world what was behind them. That’s why some  historians, often  survivors themselves, being conscious of the uniqueness of the events they had endured, began collecting testimonies in Poland, in Ukraine, in Germany and in France, to give voice to the survivors who could write down their experiences or donate to the collectors their letters, diaries, accounts. Not many people were and are aware of this early interest in preserving the personal stories and memories of the Holocaust survivors. Among the ones who deeply felt the need to collect and  to analyze in depth the conditions and the stories of the displaced persons, mostly Jewish survivors, there was an American psychologist, he himself a refugee from the Soviet Union in the Twenties. 

He had been interested in the effect of traumatic events or situations on the individual  from the beginning of his activity and, following Eisenhower’s advice, he made the decision to come to Europe in order to  interview the displaced people who were stil  living  in the Displaced persons  camps or in shelters in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. His purposes were, on the One hand to let American people know what had happened in Europe, on the other, to examine the effects of trauma on the survivors’psychological state. He firmly believed that the people Who had survived the camps had undergone a process of ‘deculturation’,  which meant they had been deprived of every social, cultural issues. “The camps not only acted to remove the rudiments of culture, but they themselves were ‘deculturated environments’ bound to evoke manifestations of subcultural behaviour in (their) victims.” Boder wrote. He thought that this effect could be easily understood by the analysis of the language used by the interviewee's in their testimonies.  Boder considered extremely important to let the interviewees speak their own languages and to listen to their stories told in their own voices. He was a polyglot and could easily manage to do the interviews in several different languages. In order to carry out this task, he used a wire recorder, an extremely innovative and modern approach at that time. He interviewed more than one hundred people with different backgrounds so that he could give a full picture of the refugees and understand how the catastrophe had affected them. When He went back to the United States, he and his assistants transcribed and  translated the inteviews which are  now  available on the website : on this site it is also  possible to listen to the original recordings. 

The importance of David Boder’s work is now being recognized by historians, psycologists, anthropologists  and researchers in general: he was one of the first scholars who understood the value of the early testimonies and the priority of listening in a time when images played a major role, also for technical reasons. He therefore played a significant role in focusing what later became fundamental issues in the Holocaust studies: the impact of traumatic experiences on human behaviour, the need to focus on the individual experiences of people who are considered only as part of a group (the refugees), the great importance of the  testimony and language. 

David Boder was not  a historian, neither he could have access to the archival resources and the documents which are now available: this means that he could not investigate the details of the accounts he was told. This was not his perspective. He left though an important inheritance to the modern historians and  researchers providing them with the survivors’  human documents and the ‘wonder of their voices’. 


Stefania Zezza