By Rachel Stengel
A society’s transformation from peaceful to murderous was the focus of a lecture from a retired Rider professor.
Dr. Marvin Goldstein presented the topic of the Holocaust to Dr. Pearlie-Mae Peter’s Literature and Violence class on Wednesday.
Prior to his retirement four years ago, Goldstein was a faculty member in the Psychology Department who specialized in social psychology, specifically prejudice. He now serves as the assistant director at Rider’s Holocaust Resource Center.
The lecture centered on the theme “How Ordinary People Become Murderers,” as well as Elie Wiesel’s acclaimed bestseller, Night. The book is about Wiesel’s experience in the Nazi death camps during World War II. Goldstein spoke about how violent behaviors are developed.
“As a psychologist, there are two ways of looking at violent behavior,” he said. “You can look at it through the field of personality psychology, in which you would say some people, because of their childhood [filled with violence], become very angry and frustrated and are looking to get even with the world. The social psychologist on the other side will say that the circumstances are more relevant for committing violence.”
The German people were not all cruel, cold-hearted people, Goldstein said. Once the Nazi regime began its tactics of intimidation, the citizens started to believe the propaganda.
“Even though you may say you would never murder somebody, under certain circumstances you would be prompted to do so,” he said. “The question is, ‘What are the circumstances?’”
Goldstein focused on the Nazi ideology that acted as a catalyst for the Holocaust.
“Whatever minority group is being attacked, we dehumanize them. We make them less than human,” he said. “You might hesitate killing another human, but when you define that person as less than human — as an object — you find it easier to kill them.”
This is exactly what Germany did with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Reich Chancellor from 1933 to 1945, the end of World War II.
The Nazi ideology demanded that the “master race” have a Nordic look with blonde hair and blue eyes. This superior race would include only the fittest in body and mind according to Nazi credo. They believed that those who possessed these qualities deserved to acquire the most land. The Nazis’ goal was to take over Europe, then conquer the world.
Goldstein provided the context for the memoir Night. He illuminated the history that accompanied the novel to provide a deeper understanding of how prejudice arises.
The anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws established the first legislation against the Jewish people. The laws classified individuals who had four Jewish grandparents as Jews, even if the indiviuals did not practice Judaism.
The Nuremberg Laws eventually led to legislation requiring Jews to wear the Star of David on their clothing in order to distinguish them from the rest of the population, further isolating them as a people.
The discrimination of the Jewish people was fostered in German schools. Many teachers were members of the Schutzstaffel, or the SS, the Protection Squadron of Germany.
Goldstein described a scene from the novel The Poisonous Mushrooms, in which a young boy is gathering mushrooms in the woods with his mother. She tells her son that there are both good and bad mushrooms but they are difficult to distinguish sometimes. The mother asks her son if he knows who the bad people are. He replies, “Of course I know, mother, they are the Jews. Our teacher has often said that in school.” This striking example demonstrates how the Nazi party instilled these discriminatory views into the youth in their formative years.
Nazi Germany developed the first government-organized prejudice. Killing became a numb reality for its citizens. It became a social norm throughout this propaganda-permeated society. Goldstein explained that because the executions became such a normality in German society, it was considered a moral action. According to Goldstein, other nations did not believe the tales of German brutality at first. These countries had to witness the horror with their own eyes once they began fighting against the abominable practices.
After the Holocaust, the topic was taboo at first. Goldstein revealed that his neighbor had the numbers from the Nazi death camp tattooed on his arm. Goldstein’s parents forbid him to ask the man about his traumatizing ordeal.
“It wasn’t until the early 1960s with the television show The Holocaust [when] it really hit the American public,” he said.
Goldstein stressed the importance of the Holocaust and genocide education. The state of New Jersey mandates that schools provide genocide education within their curriculum. According to the official legislation, “The instruction shall enable pupils to identify and analyze applicable theories concerning human nature and behavior; to understand that genocide is a consequence of prejudice and discrimination.”
“The goal is to get kids to see what stereotyping is, what the ideology was and how you could do this to a group of people,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein hopes that the rest of the country will follow in New Jersey’s footsteps by requiring genocide education in all states.