At the end of World War II, a Jewish trauma psychologist in Illinois went to Europe to record conversations with Holocaust survivors in the hopes of better understanding how they were coping, reports Newsweek. He often broke the ice by having people sing, but when he died in 1961 and his archives were given to the University of Akron in Ohio, a box of 48 wire spools went unplayed (and mislabeled) because the devices used to play them were already obsolete. And there they sat for more than 50 years, collecting dust as the mystery surrounding what they contained deepened. Now, after a three-year engineering effort to build a device that could play the spools, researchers are sharing their discovery—that the recordings are of Holocaust survivors and their songs.
The researchers say that a woman named Guta Frank sang two of the most important pieces. Though her parents and most of her siblings were killed, she survived Polish ghettos and concentration camps. The song "Undzer shtetl brent," which Frank explained had been sung by the composer's daughter in Krakow to ignite rebellion against the Germans and call out bystanders for their complacency, includes the line "our village is burning." Frank instead sang that "the Jewish people are burning," reports the Akron Beacon Journal. The other, "Unser Lager steht am Waldesrande," was sung by forced laborers and only its lyrics had previously been known. "That we could give the world the melody to a song sung by those sentenced to their death ... is remarkable," one researchers says. (One man survived nine camps.)