How Taking A Course About the Holocaust Just Might Save A Life!

This past Wednesday night was the last class of my favourite course that I teach at StFX. The course is Psyc 441 – Advanced Social Psychology. For the second year in a row, I have taught this course with a focus on the Social Psychology of the Holocaust. Every Monday and Wednesday night for the last three months, 18 students and I met to discuss some of the most horrific and unimaginable chapters of humanity’s history. While the Holocaust defies explanation, we attempted to understand what could be understood through the lens of Social Psychology. During one of our earlier classes in the semester, a question was raised.

What would you do, right now, if you were living in 1930s Germany and Jewish citizens all around you were losing their rights and being mistreated?

From this followed another question.

What would you do, right now, if you were living in 1940s North America and hearing for the first time about the ongoing atrocities taking place in Europe?

The immediate inclination of many of the students was to say that they would have done something - anything - something to try to save people, to stop what was happening. The question then evolved even further.

What would you do, today, if something similar were happening? If people were being placed in concentration camps just because of who they were, and for no wrongdoing of their own, what would you do?

Again, the students were rather convinced that they would act, that they would do something, that they would be champions of justice. They were convinced that if the information was available, that they would know about it, and more so, that they would act on that information.

So I responded and told them that right now, today, gay men living in Chechnya are being put into concentration camps. They are being tortured to give up the names of other gay men that they know, they have had all of their rights taken away, and some are being killed. It's called the "Gay Purge." And what are we doing? Nothing. At best, we share links on social media. Most of the students in the course had been unaware that this was even happening until discussing it in class, despite the wide availability of information on the topic.

For many of the students, this realization shook them and made them reconsider their answers to the previous questions. Maybe they wouldn’t have done something. Maybe they wouldn’t have been aware, or, if they had been aware, maybe they wouldn’t have actually acted upon that information. One student, however, was adamant about her answer to the previous questions. She was steadfast in knowing that if she had been alive in the 1930s and 1940s, she would have done something, whether she was living in Germany or living in North America. As a result, faced with new knowledge about the situation in Chechnya, she became resolved to do something in the here and now.

At the end of the class in which the concentration camps for gay men in Chechnya had been discussed, she came up to me and asked, “What can I do?” What could she do? I had to keep things realistic, so I said that she could learn more about the situation, that she could educate others, and that she could raise funds to help sponsor refugees who were trying to escape the persecution. In all honesty, I thought that would be the last I heard of it, but I was wrong. She did each of the things I suggested.

Within a week she had researched the topic more thoroughly and she wrote an article for The Xaverian Weekly ( so that she could help spread the word and educate her fellow students on campus. Then she attended the X-Pride coffeehouse sponsored by the Gender and Sexual Diversity Advisor’s office and collected donations to contribute to the Rainbow Railroad, an organization working to bring gay men to Canada from Chechnya as refugees. But she did not stop there. She organized a bake sale that other members of the class also contributed to, which resulted in raising even more funds for the Rainbow Railroad. Her goal was to raise $12,000 – enough to save just one life and help one gay man find refuge in Canada. This past Wednesday was the last class of the semester. The student reported to the class that she had raised $700 towards her $12,000 goal.

Our class discussion this past Wednesday was about the aftermath of the Holocaust, reconciliation, and questions of what we can do with this knowledge that we have gained over the past three months of spending our Monday and Wednesday nights together. Should we just be defeated and depressed after spending three months learning about the depths of depravity and cruelty to which humanity can sink? Should seeing the unsettling resemblances between 1930s Germany and the present-day United States terrify us? Of all the factors discussed over the semester, which one contributed the most to the Holocaust? The class came to the conclusion that true evil does not belong to any one group (or nation) of humans, but rather, true evil can exist in any place, at any time, so long as people are willing to be indifferent. So long as we are indifferent to injustice, indifferent to the suffering of others, there will always be a place for evil to fester and take hold.

But what can we do in the face of indifference? It is sometimes seemingly insurmountable to tackle the various injustices in the world. How can any of us, just individual people, make a difference? How can we, on our own, combat the indifference of so many more?

The same student provided an answer to the class by sharing an analogy. She began with - "this is going to seem a little bit abstract" [a frequent precursor to her class comments ;)], but she continued on to say:

"I teach people how to run. Often people tell me that they can't run. But they're wrong. Anyone can learn to run. The problem is that people often think of running as running fast. People think that if you cannot run fast, then you cannot run. But this isn't true. If you run slowly, you are still running. Even if you run at the same speed as walking, you are still running."

In other words, faced with something as big and awful as what is happening to gay men in Chechnya, it is not surprising that many of us respond by feeling helpless and thinking that there is nothing that we can do that would make a difference. But we do not have to join a rogue commando group and drop into Chechnya under the cover of night from Blackhawks to in order to make a difference or to stop the atrocities. It is a false dichotomy that we too often fall into to think of a problem from the perspective of "either you fix it, or you don't." Small things add up. Each individual person’s defiance of indifference chips away at collective indifference and creates, in its place, a collective consciousness, awareness, and motivation for change.

Psyc 441 was one course. It was one course with 18 students, at one university, in one province, in one country. And one person in that one course learned about something that they felt was wrong and unjust and decided to do something. As a result, we are $700 closer to saving a human life. Maybe it was a lofty goal to think that in the span of one semester $12,000 could be raised, but to me, that does not matter. $1 raised is better than nothing.

Because of this one student, more people in Antigonish, and more students at StFX, now know what is happening to gay men in Chechnya. That is a success. If not a single additional dollar is raised, it is a tremendous success that $700 was raised and that attention was drawn to this important issue.

But I think we can do more.

I know we can turn that $700 into $1000 before the end of the exam period; we are only $300 away. In fact, the coat check fees and tips at Super Sub for X-Ring 2017 will be donated towards this cause! 

But what would it take to turn that $1000 into $12,000?

Maybe we could get 11 more students like this one to be interested in the issue on 11 more campuses across Canada.  Better yet, perhaps we could convince every existing StFX student to donate $2.44 each to the fundraiser – if we did, we would save a life.

StFX has done much more in the past. Just this past Tuesday the StFX community raised $135,066.30 for student financial aid. The Class of 2018 has set a goal of raising $50,000 to support a Student Refugee Bursary. The StFX community has raised tens of thousands of dollars for SAFE in order to bring Syrian refugee families to Antigonish. By comparison, this one student’s goal, of raising $12,000 to save the life of an individual who may otherwise end up being a victim of a modern-day concentration camp, seems more than possible.

If you knew today, that somewhere in the world people were being unjustly incarcerated, tortured and killed because of who they are and who they love, what would you do?

Would you save a life? 

If you do something, no matter how small, it is greater than doing nothing.

So what will you do?

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