News: Educated Killers

Holocaust observance takes aim at racism among the educated

Apr 14, 2004 at 2:06 pm

"My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is: help our children become human."

— The late Dr. Haim Ginott, child psychologist and holocaust survivor

Nazi Germany convinced educated individuals to actively participate in the slaughter of millions of Jews 60 years ago.

The regime's use of propaganda in the arts and sciences — one of its most dangerous weapons — is the subject of the fourth annual Holocaust Awareness Weeks, sponsored by the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education (CHHE) at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion. Titled "Facing Prejudice," the 10 weeks of lectures and arts programming features presentations about past and present prejudices in an array of professional fields including medicine, psychology, religion, art, architecture and engineering.

Prejudice and racism are often attributed to ignorance, but the Holocaust demonstrated that moral and ethical intelligence aren't necessarily linked to education, according to Racelle Weiman, CHHE director.

"We often think of prejudice and racism coming out of the neglected, ignorant, uneducated population," she says. "The truth is the Holocaust happened in the most educated community in the world."

'Just another job'
A large part of Hitler's success resulted from the ability of Nazi propaganda to infiltrate the daily lives of Germans, specifically the home and the workplace. Weiman says many people today have never learned about the Holocaust or the lessons it provides about prejudice in education and the professions.

"Prejudiced people who are highly educated are very dangerous," she says.

Though education is often considered crucial to fighting prejudice, Weiman finds it interesting that a significant amount of racist and anti-Semitic ideas today proliferate on college campuses.

"Right now the largest amount of anti-Judaism that's taking place in America is happening on campuses," she says.

To teach moral and ethical lessons beyond the classroom, CHHE will host more than 30 events throughout Greater Cincinnati, including more than a dozen lectures by speakers from around the nation.

Susan Benedict, a professor from the College of Nursing at the Medical University of South Carolina, made the first presentation April 12 at UC's College of Nursing. She discussed the way sterilization and euthanasia eased Germany into its program of genocide.

More than 70,000 people in German mental institutions were killed through euthanasia. The gas chambers later employed in death camps were imports or imitations of those used by doctors and nurses at mental institutions.

Benedict says assisted suicide and genetic screening today approach the same slippery slope.

"Before a person can make a decision about these contemporary issues, I think you have to know the past," she said. "Red flags go up when you start testing people and it becomes the knowledge of potential employers and insurers."

Lectures continue Thursday with a presentation by David Culbert of Louisiana State University about the use and misuse of post-war films that, he says, sidestep the story of the Jewish tragedy.

In lectures Friday and Saturday, Robert Jan van Pelt of the University of Waterloo in Canada examines the role of architects and engineers in the Holocaust.

"They accepted these jobs as 'just another job,' " van Pelt says. "Making one's contribution to the war effort in an architect's office was much more attractive than facing the Red Army on the Eastern front. They considered Jews as sub-humans, and hence they did not figure in their moral universe of obligation."

He says German plans for a Jew-free utopia have some similarities to community development trends today. He points to the exodus of whites to the suburbs.

"The abandonment of the inner cities by the largely white middle classes in search for their suburban or extra-urban utopias of McMansions inhabited by people of similar economic value and political values does not seem so different from the German attempt to create a racially homogeneous society," van Pelt says.

Look in the mirror
Edwin Black addresses prejudice in medicine and science in a program April 25. His new book, War Against the Weak, documents how American research on eugenics — the attempt to better society by improving the human gene pool — helped found and fund Nazi eugenics.

But Black says the intermingling of prejudice and science didn't end with the Allied victory.

"Eugenics continues as neugenics," he says. "In neugenics, it will not be racist dogma or national flags that determine our future, but economic castes. It's globalization, and the charge will be led by insurance companies, employers, realtors and others who will determine the haves and have nots based on genetic profitability."

Black says the insurance industry and academia provide two examples.

"The entire insurance industry claims it can no longer function with financial viability unless it redraws insurance not along actuarial risk but genetic risk," he says. "In addition, there are many in the esteemed corridors of academia who simply cling to the idea they can better mankind by deciding who shall and shall not procreate."

The United States has been slow to acknowledge its own responsibility in the Holocaust and, as a result, ethics are still missing in the medical field, according to Black.

"Our nation has slept through the recognition of our national biological nightmare," he says. "This country doesn't do a good job of looking in the mirror."

So what can be done to prevent prejudice in the fields of medicine and science?

Black says medical ethicists are suspect, because many work for companies whose interests might skew moral debate around biotechnology.

"The greatest guideline we can hope for is 'Do no harm,' " he says. "But since, once again, these rules will be determined by those who have the greatest financial interest, the outlook is not good."

Holocaust Awareness Weeks include multimedia art, film and music events. The Kentucky Symphony Orchestra performs a concert Saturday and Sunday that pays homage to the souls and survivors of the Holocaust. Several film showings will also take place, ranging from the 1997 drama Swing Kids to a documentary about the so-called "degenerate arts" banned by the Nazi regime.

"Forbidden Sights and Sounds: Nazi Suppression of Art and Culture," an original multimedia performance by the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, wraps up Holocaust Awareness Weeks.

For more information about Holocaust Awareness Weeks, see