David, Border. I Did Not Interview the Dead, 1949.
By: Emily Crowley
In 1945, a few days before Germany surrendered to Allied Forces, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Dwight D. Eisenhower invited American newspaper editors to go to the liberated concentration camps in Germany and bear witness to the victim’s stories. David Boder answered the call and using the new technology of the magnetic wire recorder, gathered the stories of the Displaced Persons. In 1946, Mr. Boder went to Europe and began recording the stories of the victims. His goal was to document the “rank and file” experiences of the people in the camps not the exceptional stories. In all, Mr. Boder recorded the stories of seventy people representing, “nearly all creeds and nationalities in the DP installations in the American Zones.” His book, I Did Not Interview the Dead, contains seven complete narratives and parts of one. As in all oral history projects, Mr. Boder points out that, “It is not the purpose of the expedition to gain a comprehensive picture of the whole problem of the DP’s,” he simply wanted to gather personal stories, observations and interpretations of events.
This work is unique in that the testimonies are so fresh. The shock is so real. The victims still cannot comprehend what has just happened to them or what they will do next. They do not know where their relatives are or even if they are still alive. Most published Holocaust testimonies were not recorded until decades after the event which makes them inherently flawed in that they are filtered through years of thought and outside information. Mr. Boder’s book is extremely valuable in this regard.
These types of testimonies, however, will likely be very difficult for a person who has never studied the Holocaust or Nazi Germany to understand. I do not believe that this book should be taught in high school because students at this level will not likely have enough background knowledge to piece together the sometimes rambling and esoteric stories. This particular book is better suited, I believe, to students with a greater interest and background in the Holocaust. There are many specific events mentioned only briefly that many people might not understand. For instance, one of the DP’s mentions the von Raat murder at the Paris embassy. Mr. Boder does not interrupt the subject to tell the audience the circumstances of the event of the significance. There are many other references that would be confusing to a person reading who does not know the region or the timeline. In addition, the subjects often answer questions off track, not directly answering the question Mr. Boder asked them. The author attempts to clarify specific people, dates and places but subjects answer questions with whatever he thinks is important, often glossing over or completely ignoring the question. Some of the subjects are also quite difficult to understand because of various socioeconomic factors. The less educated people from rural areas are difficult to follow because they are not quite as articulate. They make esoteric comments such as ethnic (often Yiddish) phrases that cannot be exactly interpreted by the author. Many subjects also, unknowingly, make false statements and the author corrects them whenever he knows what really happened. For example, one woman said she had lived in her hometown since 1820 instead of 1920. This makes the rest of the testimony factually questionable, however compelling the narrative is.
This is the nature of oral history, however it would be very difficult to teach this book without much background knowledge. The reader receives the story how the survivor remembers it and how they want to present it. It should not be the first book a student reads about the Holocaust. It is however, a wonderful piece for students of history and especially oral history to study.