The 20th century dictator Adolf Hitler wanted to create a German super race. His Nazi Party defined that as proving one's ancestry for three generations past was free of any mixing with "non-Aryans", such as Jews, Asians, Africans. They believed that one effective check was to measure the circumference of the head and teachers were instructed to measure their students’ heads. Those with smaller heads were considered inferior.
Today, of course, scientists are virtually unanimous in declaring that no single race is superior to any other.
The school where I taught in Hamilton held activities to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day each year. I taught mathematics and asked third and fourth year pupils to participate in this bizarre ‘head measuring’ exercise.
In pairs, they measured the circumference of each other’s heads and from the results we worked out three types of averages. Maths achieved, I asked those who would be regarded as inferior using the Nazis’ criteria to stand up. How did they feel? I asked them to write a paragraph on their reactions and not surprisingly, they were shocked that people had actually been subjected to this ‘test’.
I then told them about my visit to Auschwitz in 2000 with my 15-year-old son.
Historians estimate 1.1 million people died at the hands of Poland's German occupiers at Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945, either from asphyxiation with Zyklon B gas in the notorious gas chambers or from starvation, disease or exhaustion. They included Jews, Roma, Sinti, gays, disabled and black people.
What struck me was the sheer scale of the Holocaust and how industrialised and mechanised the process of killing people became at Auschwitz. It was not hot-blooded brutality. It happened in a planned way, with some people designing the process of death and others carrying it out. We were not prepared for the impact that it had on us.
Each of the six million people ruthlessly exterminated in this way in the course of the Second World War were individuals, with personal hopes, dreams, and stories. They had belongings such as the assortment we saw at Auschwitz - suitcases confiscated by the Nazis, with names, dates of birth, and addresses. There were piles of real human hair, plaits with ribbons, ponytails cut from fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents - families no different from ours. My son remarked how many suitcases belonged to people younger than him.
We saw the empty containers of chemicals. We saw where people were piled together to await extermination. I barely fitted inside the isolation cell. The experience was very emotional. My son said he realised that hearing about history is not like witnessing it in person.
My classes agreed that we must never give up trying to improve our society and that every single person has to open his or her mind and stand up against discrimination. They stressed the importance of remembering the Holocaust today. It isn’t just a historical fact to be learned, but a lesson that prejudice, hate and intolerance can turn into the destruction of individual lives.
As the poet George Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.”