After Auschwitz: Next Steps… The Jane Elliot Experiment

As ambassadors of the Lessons From Auschwitz Project, Lilly (lillyraining) and I were asked to engage in a Next Steps project, with the aim of sharing what we had learned from our visit to Auschwitz with a wider community. We chose to imitate the Jane Elliot experiment.

The Experiment

AIM:

– To enable deeper understanding of how it feels to be either a bystander or a victim of discrimination.

METHOD:

– A Year 8 Religious Studies class was given a survey (see below) which enabled us to determine the number of students with particular eye colours.

– The following week, we took over one of their lessons and explained that the government had decided to pilot the Nuremberg Programme (bear in mind that these pupils had not yet learnt about the Nazis so were unaware of the name’s origins) which aimed to segregate brown-eyed children from the rest of the school on the basis that they were socially and academically inferior. We argued that this would benefit both the brown-eyed pupils (who could now work at their own pace) and those with ‘superior’ eye colours (who would no longer be hindered.)

– Fabricated statistics were provided, all explaining the detrimental effects of the brown-eyed gene on society.

– It was stressed that if the pilot was successful, the Nuremberg Programme would go on to affect society on a wider basis meaning both higher education and job prospects would be implicated.

– The class was then separated, with the six brown-eyed pupils being placed on a cramped table in a corner whilst their classmates were able to sit where they pleased; the former received scrap pieces of paper and poor resources whilst the latter used Netbooks; their teacher focussed predominantly on helping those in the class with ‘superior’ eye colours. Having brown eyes ourselves, myself and a fellow ambassador were ‘allocated the job’ of working with the six excluded pupils.

– Everyone in the class was given a sheet to fill out ‘for government purposes’ in which they were asked to give feedback on the programme.

– At the end of the lesson, a presentation was given which revealed the true experiment, explained its aim and gave some background on the Holocaust.

– We ensured that every pupil understood that both the research and the Nuremberg Programme were fabricated.

RESULTS:

– Initially, there was a high level of disbelief and protest with one girl questioning: ‘Isn’t this discrimination?’

– Then came a degree of fear amongst the brown-eyed pupils as they realised the wider implications of the programme. What seemed most important to them was that their friendship groups would change. One boy became distressed at the idea that his younger, also brown-eyed, siblings would be affected too. A couple began to express a feeling of injustice: they were amongst the highest achievers in the class. When we explained that we understood there would be exceptions yet the measures were still necessary, they became frustrated: they were outraged at the idea that their once-bright futures were effectively ruined.

– It wasn’t long before the brown-eyed children began to act up, began to put on ‘stupid’ voices and neglect their work; the principle seemed to be: if you’re going to treat us as inferior we will become inferior.

– Meanwhile, the majority of the ‘superior’ pupils appeared to have recovered from the initial furore, had accepted the change and were getting on with their work.

Some feedback:

“I feel sorry for them.”

“I agree because not everybody works at the same pace… its probably in there genes.”

“We won’t see our friends and we won’t be able to sit with them.”

“You have got 99% of the diversity correct.”

“I don’t want to get treated different because of the colour of my eyes.”

“If it works then great!”

“If it does work I refuse to go along with it.”

Personal Response

I found the whole experiment very difficult and emotionally draining. Particularly upsetting was having to prevent the students from talking to their blue-eyed or green-eyed friends; such incidents were used as examples of the ‘disruptive nature of brown-eyed people’ and the ease with which both groups accepted such discriminatory chastisement was disturbing.
As we called the class for de-briefing, the tightening knot of tension- caused a) because the whole thing was just so horrible, and b) because I was worried that someone would suddenly shout ‘It’s all a lie!’- was released. Cruelly perhaps, I let out a laugh of relief as their faces became a spectrum ranging from anger-annoyance. I was grateful that they no longer wore expressions of the suppressed and apathetic.
Several of those directly affected remained indignant though, which worried me: had we actually done something worthwhile, or was the whole thing simply unethical?
This doubt was only fleeting, however. After some initial confusion, the feedback received was largely positive and one student managed to summarise what, for me, was our objective: the experiment gave an ability to understand discrimination on a level far beyond the capacity of any PowerPoint presentation.

The Jane Elliot Experiment
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After Auschwitz

‘Nothing can ever prepare you for Auschwitz’ we were told.

And yet as we walked around the camp, each of us plugged into headphones, listening to our guide’s rapid, rehearsed jabber, I simply rolled my shoulders which were aching from the weight of the water in my rucksack and shifted from one tired foot to the other.

Yes, the hair was shocking. The mounds and mounds of hair. And the glasses. And the shoes…

But there was no reaction: I’d heard it all before, seen the pictures countless times.

We listened to the stories of the escapees whose friends paid the price: up to twenty could be killed for their associations with the wrongdoer. We saw the places where they were punished: the starvation cell, the standing cell, the wall of death. Bang. Bang. Bang. All through this, I begged for a reaction, tried to imagine myself in the same position. I was disturbed by the calmness which held me. A coping mechanism? Perhaps. But I didn’t feel numb; I just felt normal.

Auschwitz was a film set. I was walking through a Granada studio, next door to Coronation Street. The ‘Arbiet Macht Frei’ gate was just a prop. That’s how I felt.  I couldn’t connect with any of it. Not even the gas chamber in which millions had suffocated and then burned.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the same. Barrack upon barrack upon barrack could be seen from the watchtower window through which I knew murderers had once peered. Of course, I was struck by the vastness of the place, and shocked by the figures: 1,000 to a barrack, 8 to a bed (a euphemism for the shelves on which the prisoners slept.) Yet when walking the same walk that so many others had taken as their last, I couldn’t feel anything.

What did affect me, though, were the family photographs, accompanied by brief biographies, taken before Auschwitz destroyed everything that they had. In particular, I remember a picture of three girls, about my age, proudly playing their musical instruments for the camera. I didn’t have time to read their biography so am left wondering whether they made it out.  A face touches far deeper than a number.

The finishing ceremony, given by Rabbi Barry Marcus, at the point where the train track to Auschwitz-Birkenau ends, also provoked some response. As darkness fell and his prayer, sang in Hebrew, echoed over the vast expanse which once pulsated with feeble life, anger and fear ebbed dully within me. My main thought was of how reminiscent the contemporary cliche, ‘they’re stealing our jobs’, seems of the attitude held by many in the lead-up to the Holocaust. Did it ever really go away? Or did it just transfer from one minority group to another? Yet rather than it being those who hold with such a skin-crawling sentiment, I think that it is those of us who aren’t ignorant and bigoted and cruel that could pave the way to the next Holocaust. Our blind belief in ourselves is fast leading to a complacency which is sure to assist the spread of prejudice. We cannot allow a loss of urgency. To think ‘Oh, it will never happen again’ is just as dangerous as the contemporary myths being spouted about immigration and Islam.

Nevertheless, on the plane home, I was left selfishly pondering what was wrong with me. How was I supposed to feel? Was I heartless? Did I lack imagination? And then I went home and slept, where not a thought of the preceding day disturbed me.

But today, on my way to school, I passed a woman and a child. The boy, with a cunning smile, was obstinately refusing to follow her, secure in the knowledge that his mum would never abandon him here in the park. Yet after a couple of warnings, she began to walk away. The smile faded into a scowl and then into an expression of terror. The child was subsumed with tears as he tottered after his mother screaming ‘You left me, you left me!’

In that moment I was taken back to the train track at Auschwitz-Birkenau where mothers and children were separated with the gesture of a thumb. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends. Split into two categories: indefinitely prolonged life and death. The child’s screams continued long after his mother had scooped him up, back into the safety of her arms.

At Auschwitz, it was difficult to connect with that which happened nearly seventy years ago. To me, it didn’t feel real. It was just a place. The people that died there were just a number. History GCSE, ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, have all allowed me to explore the Holocaust, to come to terms with the horror and the suffering and the evil. Thus I argue that you can prepare for Auschwitz.

But sat here, with the image of that panic-stricken child chasing his mother who was only a few metres away, tears fall onto my hands and I realise that what it is impossible to prepare for is coming home.

And so, as the time between us and the Holocaust expands, we become less and less connected to it. This distance is becoming especially profound as the number of survivors dwindles. Yet we must remember. We must continue to visit and continue to educate others. We must always grieve the loss of life and put faces to those who suffered at the hand of the Nazis. If not for the victims, we must do it for ourselves and those that will come after us.

‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again’ George Santayana

Thank you to Lessons From Auschwitz
Another interesting article: Bystanders