Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Milgram experiment and what it means

In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram invited volunteers to participate in a study on memory and learning although the true nature of his experiment was to investigate obedience to authority.  He told participants that they were randomly assigned to either the role of teacher or learner when in fact all participants were assigned to be the teacher as every learner was a paid actor.  The participant and learner were put in separate rooms, so they could not see each other but could hear each other. The participant was to ask a series of questions to the learner, and as the teacher they were told to shock the learner whenever the learner gave an incorrect response. With each incorrect response, the participant was to increase the shock voltage by 15 volts with a maximum voltage of 450 volts, which can be lethal.  Another confederate, John Williams, was dressed in a white lab coat and acted as the authority figure in the room responding that the participant should continue the study if or when they protested.  Once the study was completed Milgram reported that 65 percent of participants repeatedly administered shocks that they believed caused severe pain and possibly death to the learner.   

Milgram conducted this study because he was interested in trying to explain the behavior of Nazis during the Holocaust.  According to Gina Perry, who is a psychologist and author of a new book entitled Behind the Shock Machine, at the time Milgram’s research was first published the American public was fascinated by the images of Adolph Eichmann that they saw on their televisions from his trial.  Hannah Arendt, covering the trial, described his impassivity and ordinariness as terrifying.  Milgram wanted to show that everyone was capable of being both ordinary and evil if one surrenders his/her will to an authority figure.  For many, Milgram seemed to be justifying the “just following orders” defense of many Nazi perpetrators.  Milgram in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, argued that subordinates, such as those under Adolf Hitler, fall into what he described as a  “profound slumber” where a man is capable of things “alien to his nature,” and feel “virtually guiltless.” Milgram wanted to re-create this “profound slumber” to see if ordinary people really engage in evil behavior.  And according to his published article, and later his book, the answer was yes, ordinary people would engage in evil behavior. 

The reason I’m writing about this experiment is because his experiment is usually accepted as valid, and then used as evidence of a psychological truth that we are all inherently evil and that evil will come out when given permission by an authority figure.  But the evidence for this supposed truth is much less credible than originally thought. Perry discovered through archival research that the results Milgram published were not always an accurate portrayal of what he observed in his experiment.  Thus his description of Nazi perpetrators committing crimes in a “zombie-like” state may not be as accurate as his original publications imply; meaning that the “I was just following orders” defense may not be as supported by Milgram’s experiment as is usually believed. 

For example, Milgram wrote in his original article that 65% of participants conformed to the authority figure and administered severe pain to the learner.  This number implies that there was one experiment, but what Perry discovered was that Milgram conducted 24 different variations of this experiment and when Perry took into account all of the variations she found that in over half of the 24 variations a majority of participants disobeyed the authority figure.   So the statistical evidence is not as straightforward as was presented by Milgram.  Another issue was his methodology.  One reason for conducting a lab experiment is to have tight controls over all variables so that you can be certain your independent variable (authority figure) impacted your dependent variable (shocks) and that your results are not due to some other extraneous variable.  When listening to the audio recordings, Perry noticed  that John Williams, the individual playing the authority figure in the room, was not following a clear script.  Milgram in his publications wrote that Williams followed a strict four phrase response to any questions asked by the participant (teacher) but according to Perry’s research, Williams often went off-script and commanded subjects up to 25 times to continue with the experiment.  This hurts the credibility of his findings as that type of behavior shows the researcher trying to create a certain response, so the participant response is no longer organic but produced by the researcher. And finally Perry discovered correspondence between Milgram and his participants after the study was completed documenting how some participants were suspicious that the scenario was a hoax.  As Perry points out, Candid Camera was the most popular show on television at the time.   For example, participants told Milgram that the learner cries seemed to come from the corner of the room, like from a tape recording.  Others noted that they actually decreased the voltage yet the learner’s cries intensified.  As Perry writes, the skepticism of the participants hurts the validity of the study, as the participant’s belief in the scenario was crucial to measuring how much pain people were willing to inflict on someone.  If participants were suspicious, they may have demonstrated demand characteristics and simply started to do what it was clear the researchers wanted. 

Perry’s research is important for us to know about because many believe that Milgram provided solid evidence to support the supposed truth that we are all ordinary and all capable of evil. Because once we begin to accept that as true, we begin to act in ways that corroborate that truth; thus we become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Whether you believe that Milgram’s finding are valid or not, he does provide an important reminder that we should all be critical readers and thinkers. 

Perry, Gina.  The Shocking Truth of the Notorious Milgram Obedience Experiments.  October 2, 2013.   

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Marian Kolodziej - art and reflection

As I was brainstorming about what to write for my next blog, I kept coming back to the haunting images I saw in the basement of a Polish monastery one dreary October day.  It is in the St. Maximilian Kolbe Franciscan Center where the moving works of Marian Kolodziej permanently reside.  Kolodziej, who was a 17 year old Polish Catholic resistance fighter, was on the first transport to the newly established Auschwitz camp.  As a Polish Catholic, he was not imprisoned in Birkenau- the death camp.  But the suffering he endured as a prisoner of the Nazi regime and the pain he saw inflicted on others left its mark.  Kolodziej suppressed the memories until he suffered a stroke at age 71.  At that point, he used these memories in his recovery process and began drawing moving and symbolic images based on his experiences in Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen-Gusen.

Because I viewed Marian Kolodziej’s work four years ago, I did a little Googling to view some of his works and get some details of this amazing artists.  Apparently, unbeknownst to me, there was a documentary produced in 2010 (a year after my visit) called “The Labyrinth”.  The makers of this short documentary interviewed Kolodziej before his death.  He allowed his words (not his voice) and profile to be seen but stressed that he wanted his story and his art to be about the memory of those who were lost.  By watching the trailer for the movie (and certainly the movie in its entirety), you can not only see some of his work, but the space in which it is housed.  You can also hear the moving words of Kolodziej.  His story and his work is a powerful way to use a very personal testimony with our students.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Survivor testimony available ONLINE!!!

Top: Dora Edelbaum, Leo Zemelman, Clara Grossman. Bottom: Otto Schick, Mina Nisenkier, Alegra Tevet.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day - a day designated by the United Nations and scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In recognition of this commemoration, today we are pleased to announce a year-long initiative to make our local survivor testimony available online!

This month we feature six survivors who experienced Auschwitz - Dora Edelbaum, Leo Zemelman, Clara Grossman, Otto Schick, Mina Nisenkier, and Alegra Tevet.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Character education and the impact of a liberator

Listening to the NBC Nightly News about a Holocaust survivor reuniting with her liberator nearly 70 years later brought attention to the room.  Marsha Kreuzman, nearly 90 years old, spent five years in concentration camps.  She was forced to dig her own father’s grave after watching his killing.  Her mother and brother also perished in the Holocaust.  Weighing 68 pounds at 18, she was being led to her death outside the crematoria at Mauthausen when the liberators arrived.  Kreuzman moved to the United States, became a nurse and married a Holocaust survivor. She spent years telling her story of the Holocaust to students and organizations.  Coincidently or simultaneously, miles a way, Joseph Barbella from the 11th Armored Division shared his pictures, photographs and story of liberating the Mauthausen concentration camp. Marsha Kreuzman spent years looking for her liberator and discovered Barbella when a 65th wedding anniversary announcement appeared in the newspaper.   Meeting 93-year old Barbella last October, 2013 in Union, New Jersey, Kreuzman was able to say, “I love you.”  In return, Joseph Barbella said, “I’m so thankful we saved you.”  Marsha Kreuzman concluded the NBC interview with, “He deserves to be honored.  Now I can rest in peace knowing that I found him and go to thank the Americans that liberated me.”

With the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27th, the United Nations has designated this day as International Holocaust RemembranceDay.  Thus, in remembering our survivors and liberators, my former students and I have been thinking about Col. Keith Schmedemann who presented at our middle school three years ago.  Preparing the students for the interview, I reinforced that Schmedemann is a primary source; he is present to tell his story of liberation. However, I cautioned students that these veterans or primary sources are increasingly unable to present due to illness or death.  He, like other veterans, sacrificed their lives to save others.  Col Schmedemann passed away on February 12, 2013.  Therefore, from 2011, here is a reprint of a student’s interview with Col. Schmedemann, who liberated survivors in Buchenwald concentration camp.

Colonel Schmedemann
by Katie Donaldson
Hearts beating by the second these courageous heroes wait cautiously for the next gunfire. And when its shot, 1, 2, or maybe even 10 donate their life to save our country. Not only do they use their brain for strategies, they use their heart for determination. These champions are willing to sacrifice their lives for us. November is the month we honor saints and veterans. According to America, veterans are saints; saints for our country. They overcame their deepest darkest obstacles and dominated the impossible.
We recognize these advocates that may date back a while ago during the Holocaust or maybe recently in Afghanistan. Last year the fellow eighth graders witnessed an experience of a lifetime, they had the privilege to talk to a liberator in the Holocaust, Col. Keith Schmedemann. He was one of the protagonists that put his worries and selfish needs aside and focused on others. This man and several others are greatly admired for their work to our fellow brothers and sisters. God called him to offer up his life to the vulnerable. Col. Keith Schmedemann remembers every little detail in the years he fought; from the anguish he saw thrust upon the victims in the concentration camps to the arrogant feeling he sensed when he felt victory. His words traveled on a journey, and the students felt every hill he had to climb.
 He talked about how fate brought him into war. His father was in World War 1 and he happened to be born 1 year after that war; time after he would be matured enough to fight in his dad’s footsteps. Col. Keith Schmedemann started his presentation by making the statement, “We quit making automobiles, and started making tanks.” This point in history was when airplanes were modeled and new technology was being created. Soon enough he dug deeper and discussed his work in the Army. With years after years of practice and training, and with the help of K-State, he accelerated from level 1 to the highest level in the Army. This hero was an Infantry Officer; which is a branch of army that is in the action and fighting. He was also involved in liberating a concentration camp called Buchenwald. “I crawled through the mud, dodged bullets, and leaped over creaks,” this is what this idol said about the things you see in movies that he did every day. 
“I pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America……” Does this sound familiar? This patriotic leader honors these words every time they are said. He believes in respecting the flag and the country because that shows your pride.  Sometimes when he says these words tears form in his eyes because it reminds him of the sacrifices his colleagues and other veterans faced to free lives.  He admires all the soldiers and their love for their country. Mr. Schmedemann declares, “I don’t think there are wars, it is simply a conflict between beliefs. There is never going to be a winner or loser, but there will be defeats and achievements, like our achievement in defeating Hitler.”

With the use of primary sources such as Joseph Barbella, Marsha Kreuzman, and Keith Schmedemann, students are able to gather, analyze and evaluate information and events.  Thus, the skill that is taught is to utilize text from websites, write an informative piece and produce a technology piece such as powerpoint or educreations.  This opportunity challenges students’ critical thinking skills:  paraphrasing, summarizing, connecting text to self, other text and drawing conclusions.  Web sites utilized were the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, the United States HolocaustMemorial Museum, Yad Vashem, and the Jewish Foundation forRighteous.  

Using their i-pads, students will complete an individual and group project.  At our school, we have monthly character traits or principles; therefore, words such as integrity, responsibility, respect, self-discipline, and tolerance.  Students will create an Educreations project or powerpoint that defines integrity, compassion, and courage, provides examples of liberators, survivors or rescuers enacting them, and narrates a story of each slide.  Students will be able to draw pictures, download photographs and music, and create own music for this project, all while remembering those who make a difference.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Jews under Soviet occupation

I know that many Holocaust educators are leery of using historical fiction in their curriculums.  However, as a library media specialist and historian, I know that fiction often leads students to search for additional information in non-fiction sources.  Such is the case with Ruta Sepetys’ book Between Shades of Gray.  Not the Shades of Gray you were automatically thinking about, rather, a story set in Lithuania in the early 1940s!  Lithuanian intellectuals, artists, even librarians were sent to Siberia for the crime of being Lithuanian and not communist.  Their journey reads like the Holocaust.  Stalin versus Hitler.  After reading the book, I wanted to know more.  My knowledge of Stalin was limited, but I knew some 20 million or more died under his reign of terror.  But I was unaware that even when people were released from the gulags years later they returned to homes, possessions, and even names stolen by the Soviets.  They were forbidden to speak of their experiences on penalty of a return trip to Siberia or worse.  Many died still holding their secrets even after the Wall came down. 
It just so happens that I chose to read this book while on vacation in the Baltic States this summer.  In Latvia, we visited the Salaspils Concentration Camps or Kurtenhof if you’re German.  This was no simple trip either.  We walked close to five miles through thick forests and strawberry-picking Latvians, before we found the camp.  No signs, no guides, and no help from the locals until we were almost on top of it.  Right in the middle of the forest, it sat in the quiet, with singing birds and a metronome beating out a constant heartbeat for all eternity.  The huge concrete slab at the entrance read simply “Behind this gate the earth groans.”  The guide book said 100,000 Jews died here, in addition to the 4,000 to 5,000 POWS at an adjacent camp.  And these figures don’t include the 28,000 Rigan Jews that died close by in the Rumbala Forest.  There was no guide or pamphlet at the camp.  When I checked the Internet, on our return, there was very little information or resources.  What I did find is that the numbers of dead at Salaspils are still much debated.  The Soviets say 100,000, but can’t be trusted, and several sources put the number at 3,000.  This is a huge discrepancy and no one seems to know for sure.  It is clear that almost all of the Jews in Riga, then known as Reval, were murdered.  Less than 200 survived, and these people hid until the Soviet Liberation in 1945.  They came out glad to be alive and looking for freedom, but found the Soviets wondering how they had survived and assuming they’d collaborated with the Nazis.  So, all were sent to gulags in Siberia. 
I still want to learn and know more about the victims of Hitler and Stalin and this search for information all started with an historical fiction book called Between Shades of Gray.