Voice of the Dead

When my friend knocked on the door of my university digs, clutching an old style reel to reel tape recorder called a Uher, he was ashen faced and said he needed me to listen to what he had recorded on that old fashioned machine. This was before digital technology ruled radio, when everything then was recorded on magnetic tape and to edit, you used a razor blade and splicing tape – marking your edits with a soft, white chinagraph pencil.

We were both spending our time – far too much time - at the university radio station, beginning to learn our craft. We used to take that old Uher – it weighed eleven pounds - everywhere. We recorded interviews and took them back to the shack where we broadcast from, editing on a bigger machine while wearing big old clunky headphones, trying not to slice our fingers off with the razor blade.

In the future, technology meant you could mix down, blend, insert sound and create magical things with computers. Back then all we had was record decks, reel to reel tape and eight track cartridge machines. It was basic, unsophisticated but it was sound: captured.

My friend – I will call him Peter Lubeck – was second generation British/Polish and studying engineering. His own digs were with a Polish uncle in town. I was on campus, nearer to the radio station and far enough away from the Library to excuse myself from reading eighteenth century poets and leaving me free to plan radio programs instead.

Peter put the Uher down on my desk. He was far more of a radio geek than I was, enjoying the mechanical side of the recording process, taking equipment to pieces and he also liked heavy rock. He was good natured, open and honest, pragmatic and always wore sweat shirts just a bit too baggy, faded after too many washes and declaring devotion for Def Leppard. His curly hair stuck out at odd angles but he wasn’t smiling that night.

‘I don’t know what it is.’ He said.

This reaction surprised me. Peter always knew what it was when a switch didn’t work or the turntable in the studio got stuck.

I made a coffee. The colour returned a bit to Peter’s face. He explained he had taken the machine with him when he went to chat to his uncle earlier that evening – a bit of family history really. We were at that stage when you would practice interviewing and editing all the time. He had sat down with him in the living room, surrounded by family photographs and they talked for about ten minutes, the microphone large and attached to the Uher by a heavy wire. His uncle had enjoyed the experience and asked Peter to play it back. Peter checked the battery was good – they were huge rechargeable batteries in those days  – and they sat back to listen.

About four minutes in, the sound of Peter’s voice asking his uncle a question faded out. There was a total silence on the tape. Then, a quiet whispered voice, desperate and frightened began. It didn’t make any sense. It was clearly not English and it appeared to be running backwards, hushed and fast and it was the voice of a man, extremely frightened – a plea, a sob, and the desperation was just unearthly. It ran for about twenty seconds, this garbled sound – the effect was visceral. I felt cold. I looked at Peter and he was pale once more. Then – the voice faded to nothing, black silence and then what came back was Peter’s uncle talking about life in a University town and the voices of Peter and his uncle sharing a joke.

I pressed stop on the machine. ‘I don’t know what that is,’ repeated Peter. I asked if he had checked the actual tape he recorded the interview on. Sometimes, it could twist as it looped from reel to reel. Sometimes you could get what we called a ‘drop out’, when the tape was damaged. That tape would corrupt if there was a magnet near – producing a fuzzing sound or a total wipe of what was recorded on it.  Peter assured me there was nothing magnetic near the Uher that evening.  We looked at the last section of tape – the brown, shiny ribbon in the Uher. It was perfect. Not a twist or tear.

But then Peter really did chill me.

‘Listen,’ He said.

It was possible to run the sound backwards on those old reel to reels. Useful for pinpointing where you wanted to edit – to remove a cough or someone stumbling. Peter set the machine and ran the tape by hand backwards over the length of tape. I could hear the garbled voices of Peter and his uncle. Then that strange silence. So complete it felt dark with no background traffic noise or atmosphere which should have been picked up in that suburban living room. Then, that voice – I can still hear it – that desperate voice, low enough and urgent, the words in Polish spoken as if in fear of being heard, and sound wrenching words. I knew it was an appeal for help. I asked Peter what those words were saying, those Polish words playing backwards on that old reel to reel tape recorder, making sense if you knew the language.

Peter had tears in his eyes, he blinked, and clearly upset and now high colour was in his cheeks. “Rose, the words are saying ‘Please help me, God help me, please help me...’”

I pushed the Uher away from me. Peter leaned forward and did it again, rewinding by hand so the sound – recorded backwards – made sense to him and the language of his family.  Our eyes met. He blinked away the tears, embarrassed to be crying. I asked if he had played that to his uncle and Peter said his Uncle had leapt out of the chair and ran for a bible. He was almost hysterical and it took Peter a while to calm him, trying to explain away the possible technical issues. Then, Peter’s uncle looked at him and said the voice was that of his grandfather, who died in Treblinka in the death camp in 1944. Peter knew some of the family had perished after being used by the Nazis for slave labour.

We listened again, I watched the smooth magnetic tape spill the sound of desperation in my bed sit. I asked Peter to stop. We never did have an explanation for what he recorded. I refused to allow the Uher to stay in my room, I was frightened by it. Peter shook his head and picked up the heavy box, the two reels fastened inside with the tape spooled neatly in place. He left and we never spoke of it again.

Had that happened today, technology would be easy to explain producing that sound. But not then. Peter went on to a great career in radio and I never knew if he and his uncle spoke more of that spectral voice, caught on tape.

I never wanted to hear it again.