We all know of the famous experiment of the subjects that were brought in and told to continue shocking other subjects (whom they did not see) until they screamed and eventually went silent. The experiment was meant to shed light on how a things like the Holocaust happened, that people are willing to do atrocious things under orders. This of course brings up very unpleasant worries of what we would have done not only in the experiment but also in the Holocaust itself.
The Holocaust is very upsetting to me and something I simply do not want to know any more about. So I was quite taken aback when my kids came home from the first day of summer acting workshop and reported that they were going to be enacting the Holocaust. We signed them up for workshops last year at UVU (make up and stage combat) and this year the offering for their age group was listed as enacting World War II (earlier in the summer the program did the Revolutionary War and the Civil War). My wife was going to be out of town that week for a conference so I was happy that the kids would have something to keep them occupied (my kids who signed up for the class are 10 and 12, the age range for the class was 4th to 9th grade).
So when they were told that by World War II they really meant the Holocaust, I was appalled. My daughter had been assigned to be a Nazi civilian and my son a concentration camp guard (you know, the guys that Western society has been hunting for the last 70 years because of their atrocities). So the plan was to get them into another class but my sister sat them down and went over the brochure with them that explained that this would be improvisation and that “maybe you can change history” was the line that was used. I still thought this was a terrible idea, that either the kids would refuse to play the roles and thus there would be no performance or they would play the roles with zest and it would be really disturbing. My kids decided to give it another day but also didn’t want to switch classes because the other offerings were at 9 (as opposed to 1) and didn’t want to get up that early. So the kids worked on researching for their roles and various improvisation techniques for the week.
The day of the performance came. Their younger sister had signed up for a class that performed a scene from a Midsummers Night’s Dream and she got to be a fairy. Very cute and very age appropriate. The Holocaust enactment was quite the contrast. All the kids were in costume, some with Nazi arm bands and some with Stars of David and they all gave short speeches that they wrote. My son had gone to the teacher earlier in the week and asked if he could be a good camp guard and so he gave a speech (as though he were before the Nuremberg tribunal) on how he should not be executed for his crimes because he had been as kind to the Jews in the camp as he possibly could have (sneaking them food and trying to make life easier). This contrasted greatly with another kid in the class who played his role–concentration camp director–with zeal. (That is what was particularly upsetting, the kids wanted to act and some really wanted to play the bad guy, but for 10-year olds, bad guys are characters like Darth Vader, not Nazi prison wardens!) This kid also gave a defense, but his was different: he said he should not be executed because Jews were “spit.” Yikes!
After the speeches (all sorts of roles) they were then to enact the various scenes of the Holocaust. This was to be improvisation and they had practiced various silly things during the week, like waiting at a bus stop and asking a girl out on a date. The final performance was quite different. They went through four scenarios. For the first one the teachers read the date and laws for various restrictions put on Jews: losing telephone, radio, and car privileges. The kids were then supposed to improv. Next was a scene that was supposed to take place in France where the Nazi kids were supposed to round up the Jews. The final scene was the biggest disaster: the liberation of the concentration camp. Again, improv. The American soldier showed up at the camp and the kids playing the Jews all begged him for food. He mimed giving them food at which point the Jews ate it and all fell over dead (they had been told that the concentration camp victims who ate too much food stomachs exploded and that’s what they acted out). The teacher cut that one off pretty quickly.
One of the most interesting, though equally disturbing was the improv of the concentration camp, the third scenario. The Jews were to get off the train and be met by the Nazi guards including my son and the zealous Nazi camp director. The kids played their roles and the Nazi’s quickly began dividing the Jews into workers and those who were to “take a shower!” in the words of the zealous camp director (he shouted the phrase over and over and made the baseball “you’re out” sign as he did so.)
Interestingly, my son also played his role zealously, one that he picked out himself: the good camp guard. When the camp director shouted for Jews to “take a shower,” first my son joked “Why? They look pretty clean.” When the camp director was distracted sorting our other Jews, my son told the Jews sent to gas chamber to escape. Then he came up from behind the camp director while he was deliberating with another Nazi about which of two Jewish girls they would let live. “They’re only half human!” the camp director bellowed, to which my son responded “yeah, and together they make one whole person so they should both live.” This sort of befuddled the camp director, but he got his bearings back and shouted “to the showers” at one of the girls. Then the camp director and the other Nazi followed her and my son to what was supposed to be the gas chamber (there were no sets, just a part of the stage that played the role) and shouted “pull the lever!” over and over. My son said, “what lever” and then finally refused as they kept shouting. At my son’s refusal, the camp director pantomimed cutting off my son’s fingers (my son explained afterwards that they were told a story of a camp guard who refused to pull the lever and so they cut off his fingers, thus the kid was just acting out the story). The teacher called the scene to an end shortly after.
As appalling as this whole production was (what were these teachers thinking!) it was interesting to watch my son’s choices from asking the teacher to play the good role to acting it out. I don’t know how “real” these scenarios were for the kids (my daughter said the horror of it didn’t really register for the younger kids–the kid who played the camp director looked about 12–while the older kids (14-15) really looked traumatized) but I like to think that perhaps this means that my son would have preformed well both in the experiment and in the actual atrocity. I can only imagine what the parents of the kid who played the camp director were thinking.