JBU Stories - Dr. Kevin Simpson

The heart of JBU is our people. Here are their stories.

JBU factoid

Dr. Kevin Simpson grew up fascinated with World War II. Through his work, he began to realize that psychology has something unique to offer in terms of answering some of the "why" questions. 

"It's compelling to talk about the origins of anti-Semitism in Christianity, but also talk about what people did during the war to fight that atrocity. We talk about the rescuers certainly, but the people who were resistors through their faith, Bonhoeffer's the most maybe famous example. But for us as educators the issues don't necessarily change that much."

Show Transcript

Julie:

Welcome to the JBU Stories Podcast. I'm your host Julie Gumm, Director of University Marketing and Communications at John Brown University. I'm also an alum and a current parent, so I get to see JBU from all sides. The heart of JBU is really our people, our students, alumni, faculty and staff. The JBU Stories Podcast is where we get to introduce you to these amazing people and hear their stories. 

Hey everybody. We hope you had a great weekend. Welcome back to another episode of JBU's Stories Podcast. This episode features my interview with Dr. Kevin Simpson, the head of our Psychology department and one of our Psychology professors here at JBU. He's taught Psychology in a variety of universities for about 12 years and we've actually gotten to know each other because our sons played high school soccer together. And Kevin is very interested in a subject that interests me. So, actually, my mom is a big WWII history buff, that's been an area of interest for her for a long time. And Kevin's research, a lot of it centers around the Holocaust. And so I've been fascinating to follow along with his academic research that he's doing and think this is such an important subject matter really. Because when you think about it, the youngest survivors of the Holocaust are about 74 or 75 years old today. 

And so that is a group of people that we are not going to have around too much longer. And so I think it's super important to have all the opportunities we can to hear their stories, to record those stories, and to pass those stories onto the next generation. So I hope you enjoy my interview with Kevin. 

Kevin, why don't you just tell us a little bit about who you are, what your background is and your relation to JBU. 

Kevin Simpson:

Great. Well I've actually been connected to this place for over 30 years now, which is kind of shocking to realize. I attended JBU, graduated late 80s. And played soccer here. And absolutely loved it. Ended up, in hindsight, seeing it as a life altering decision, if that doesn't sound too dramatic. Simply because went on to undergraduate school a couple other places, but found my way back to JBU about seven years ago when a position became open in Psychology. So I had taught in Denver, Utah, for 12 years in Portland, Oregon, but made my way back to JBU. And it's been probably the best move we've ever made, for our family, I feel so at home here. Feel like I'm growing as a professor. But yeah it's been a little over 30 years at this point, which is just kind of daunting to think about.

Julie:

Because we don't feel that old, do we?

Kevin Simpson:

  No. Of course. And they never grow older, right?

 Julie:

  No.

 Kevin Simpson:

 The people we work with are always 18 to 23, so yeah. 

 Julie:

 They do, being around the college kids is kind of the thing that makes me feel old sometimes. 

 Kevin Simpson:

 Yeah.

 Julie:

 Generally I don't, but...

 Kevin Simpson: 

You wonder how they see you.

Julie:

That and talking about times when we were at JBU and what things were like, and then they just roll their eyes at us. 

So you're a psychology professor, head of the psychology department. But one of your main academic research areas is the Holocaust. How do those two things fit and come together? 

Kevin Simpson:

I think if you asked me that question when I was in graduate school, I might have given you a blank stare with maybe some fumblings around history and psychology being cousin disciplines. But it really became apparent to me as I taught social psychology over the years. Where a lot of the examples we would use to illustrate concepts regarding prejudice and group behavior, altruism even, why people do good things when it's maybe not in their best interests or personal interests, constantly came back to examples from this major human event: Genocide, particularly the Holocaust. So, it was probably a decade ago, I would have a lot of after class conversations with a really good friend of mine, historian at Concordia University in Portland, and we shared an interest in WWII history. That was his specialization. 

I grew up kind of fascinated with WWII. I think I'm of the generation that maybe glorified the war and it's heroics, and Nazis were always evil of course. But I started to realize that psychology has something unique to offer in terms of answering, maybe, some of the why questions. Of course, history's good at filling in the details with what happened and some of the “how” questions, but psychology really speaks to human motivation, personality theory, this sort of stuff. So the “why” question was really compelling. So I felt it necessary for me to get up to speed to where historians were, so I took a very formative seminar at the Holocaust museum—10 years ago actually, this summer. And I'll talk about it a little bit later on in terms on why I teach the Holocaust. There was something that happened there the last week at the museum, it was very striking. 

But a very influential, very well-known historian from North West University, Peter Hayes, who just opened up my eyes to how these fields can go together and so I felt like I was getting the grounding I needed to be able to teach competently. But initially I taught, co-taught the course with a history colleague at Concordia, different gentleman. But eventually, through self-study and the seminars, I felt like I could take on a course like this on my own. So, I eventually started to do that, and I actually used an aspect of this area when I did my interview at JBU back in 2012, so. It was always kind of in my thinking. 

For whatever reason I became captivated by it. And it opened up again so many doors for travel, for meeting the other scholars, in fact we've got a gentleman that I developed a quick friendship with in Slovakia who we're hoping to bring to JBU as a full ride scholar in 21, 22. So very excited about that. His name is Mika Helvanik- 

 Julie: 

 Oh, very cool.

 Kevin Simpson:

 So excited to bring him. Big fella, tall fella, but excited to come here.

 Julie: 

Yeah, yeah. So you had, in some of those early on years—you kind of mentioned it—you had some fellowships that you were able to do at the US Holocaust memorial museum, and a summer institute on the Holocaust and Jewish civilization. What was your primary goal in going into those? Were you doing specific research on specific topics within the Holocaust?

 Kevin Simpson:

For the one through North West University, that's the HEF fellowship, that again came just a couple years after the one at the Holocaust museum and, again, I felt like I was getting a more solid grounding in areas of Holocaust literature, art, film even. In fact, the year after that I did a Holocaust in film course in Portland. That's of course what I actually try to teach here, we've been, I've been talking with Professor Sned here at JBU, but there were some areas that still needed coverage from me in terms of exposure and literature and reading and that sort of thing. So that's what that did, but then there was a follow up to that, kind of a secondary grant, where I was able to travel to a lot of the Holocaust memorial sites. 

So in addition to having taken students to Auschwitz a couple of times, I visited Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow. We always ventured to some of the rural areas where the worst of the Holocaust occurred, especially in southeast Poland, and ended up back in Vienna. So right before I came to JBU, I actually did a semester abroad teaching on the Holocaust in Vienna. And Austria has a really interesting story, kind of like Slovakia does in terms of being very enthusiastic collaborators with the Nazis. But for me, I needed to see the places, I felt like I needed to kind of walk the grounds, many of the places are very sacred. I mean, a lot of people describe Auschwitz as a cemetery, so you walk through these places with a real sense of awe and trepidation even, because you know the stories that fill the spaces there. 

 Julie:

Yeah, it's definitely very ... my husband and I had a chance to go to Stockhausen in Germany and it's a very sacred experience, to walk on those grounds and read the stories and see the photographs and ... yeah, very sobering. 

So you had all this time, and then in 2016 you published your first book, Soccer Under The Swastika, so you got to combine two of your passions. 

 Kevin Simpson:

 I did, I did. Unexpectedly.

 Julie:

 Yeah, tell us, how did the spark for that book start?

 Kevin Simpson: 

 

Well, I put together a paper for conferences, actually a soccer conference when I was writing about one particular ghetto camp and it was just north of Prague, place called Terezin. The Nazis called it Theresienstadt, and basically it was a place that was set up to be a façade of sorts. In other words, this is place where the Jews are supposedly being treated well, like a refugee center, but in fact it was a way station. The stopping off point before Auschwitz for many Jews, especially Jews from western Europe. These again were Jews who were going to be missed, they're very famous in, again, in sciences and culture. 

But in this camp, beyond all of the other thousands of other camps and ghettos across Europe, there existed three levels of soccer. A pro level, an amateur level and a youth level. And we know the most about the soccer in these places. So I put together this paper and, at the conference, after presenting, bumped into a book publisher, an editor, who thought, who asked me, "Have you ever thought about doing a book level project on this?" And that hadn't crossed my mind, because I was doing this one off sort of project. 

But every time I would prep for my courses, both in Portland and even here a JBU, I kept coming across photographs and memoir accounts, people that played in these places. And I was shocked by that, because of course these places are meant to destroy, to starve, to murder, and the most compelling photo that I remember seeing early on were of these prisoners, maybe three months after Dachau opened near Munich, and they're kicking a ball around this dusty field and you quickly realized, well, this is a Nazi propaganda photograph that they put into local newspapers but there was something else there. So the more I dug, the more I learned, and again the kind of tricky aspect of this is for many survivors, they didn't really talk about this much after the war because to have played in these places and maybe got extra rations or protection or privilege was seen maybe as something you didn't want to talk about too publicly. 

Of course the question would immediately come up, “What about those who perished, who of course were not part of that privileged class?” and there was one testimony account of what was going on in Terezin where this youth player, who loved the game, like a lot of boys and girls are just crazy about whatever sport or activity they find when their young. They remembered, or he remembered talking about, or remembering the players and they represented life and vitality and even virility. Surprisingly, these were healthy young men who could still play their sport well. Many of them played professionally before their incarceration or their imprisonment. And for them, they represented hope, they represented hope for the future that could be realized after the war was over. 

So it was symbolic, but it was also real. These players represented something that of course had been taken from them, if they were in these places as well, so- 

Julie:

So was there, I mean, the guards and stuff at the camp, they were actually organizing these leagues and promoting these games and that sort of stuff. And I liked, I think it was ... I don't remember if it was an article of your book that I read that talked about how they used it, but the prisoners who were playing, it was also kind of like a little form of rebellion.

 Kevin Simpson:

 It was--

 Julie:

For them. 

Kevin Simpson: 

 

There were other activities in the camp that allowed prisoners to voice their resistance. In fact in Terezin there's a very famous story of a conductor of Prague, composer named Raphael Schachter, and in fact one of the fellowships I attended was devoted to his honor, where they created what was called the defiant requiem. And they used veritas [mass], veritas requiem, which is in Latin. The prisoners learned it and of course the composition of the choir changed as people were deported and frankly sent to their deaths. But they sung it to Latin one time, to their Nazi captors. It was during a Red Cross visit, and it was ... when you look at the Latin lyrics, it's a condemnation of the evil in the world, that there's going to be a reckoning. It's remarkable they pulled this off. But sport represented this as well. 

The most, maybe well known example is boxing, where you might have a German and a Polish boxer in the ring, prisoners, but they'd be battling it out and it's a way again, to get a little revenge, frankly, for the cruelty, for the inhumanity of it all. Football though, you would have nationalities playing each other, there were of course leagues in other camps, but Terezin's the most well known one. In fact when I was in Slovakia this spring I did a lecture at the Mauthausen camp, to the staff there. 

We're learning a lot more about the soccer that happened there, and originally it started with the Spanish prisoners who were sent there, who were fighting Franco during the Spanish civil war. And these prisoners again, almost immediately, because they weren't Jews, which again put them in a different class. They set up a league and again, you got extra protection, you got extra rations, sometimes the SS were betting on the games as well, so it was a way, again, to keep yourself alive. Sadly though, you get an injury, a serious injury, and you might be put on the next transport because you don't serve the purposes of the leadership, so. 

 Julie: 

 

Yeah. You talked a little bit about specific stories and stuff. Was there a person, a single person, that you learned a lot about in your research for that book that really stood out to you? 

 Kevin Simpson: 

 Actually there is. There's a gentleman named Enrich Cortez, he's, if I'm not mistaken, a Nobel laureate. He's a survivor, Holocaust survivor, and he's most known for his memory of the Holocaust and Czech literature in particular. But he was a younger, a young man, and he talked about how ... in fact it's one of the, one of the quotes I have in the book about what soccer represented to those in those moments. And for him, he talks about soccer, it's called internationally the beautiful game for good reason. That there's a flow to it, that creativity and spontaneity of course is rewarded, but in this place again of ultimate suffering it represented again an aesthetic, a beauty, that could kind of counter the atrocity that constantly surrounded them. There's stories of people coming to watch these games by the thousands, especially in Terezin, and-

 Julie: 

 So, like, people living nearby? Just civilians?

 Kevin Simpson:

No, no. In the camp. In the ghetto.

 Julie: 

Oh, in the camp.

 Kevin Simpson:

 Because it was a ghetto city, it had the walls--

 Julie:

So the other prisoners would all come and...okay.

 Kevin Simpson: 

 Yeah, and you'd have to have tickets sometimes for the big matches, but there's one story of people who were part of the death detail, frankly, where they'd have to take out bodies that had maybe perished the night before and they'd set the stretcher down to watch this particular match and then they'd pick the stretcher up at the end and resume their duties. Just a powerful reminder that unfortunately, in the Nazi sphere, death marched on.

 Julie:

 Yeah, yeah. So you received a Fulbright US scholar grant for teaching in fellowship for the 2018-19 school year. That was actually last spring. So you spent basically February through May in Bratislava Slovakia, did I do that okay?

 Kevin Simpson:

Got it right, got it right.

 Julie:

 

So why Slovakia? Why did you choose that as the place that you wanted to go to? 

Kevin Simpson:

I've got this question a lot. And I think it's because people confuse Slovakia with Slovenia, and a number of other countries in the east there, eastern Europe. But the more honest, more direct answer is that, when you really kind of get beyond the major characters—the Nazi Germany's France, England, US, Russia—Slovakia played particularly devastating role early on. They were a part of the former Czechoslovakia and, again, I won't give you the complicated long answer here, but Slovakia represents collaboration at it's worst. 

And the peculiar twist for me was that they were led by a Catholic priest, a guy named Jozef Tiso, who was very nationalistic, very committed to his faith. In fact very early on in his career, very motivated by issues of poverty, social justice this kind of stuff. But once it became apparent that Slovakia could be easily gobbled up, either by Communist east or by Nazi Germany, he tried to negotiate a middle ground and, in doing so, was a very early collaborator. 

So it's the only instance, for instance, where a country who collaborated with the Nazi's actually paid for their Jews to be deported. So they actually deported them and then also had to pay 500 Reichsmark. So for me, that was really compelling, not a very well known story, and I want to understand that a bit more because when I teach on the Holocaust, I'm very interested in having my student understand what it means to be a bystander. Whether it's a modern issue today or again in these fateful times. So for me, Slovakia was a nice add on to my time I spent in Vienna. Vienna's a 45 minutes train ride away, so, very different, though, because they were under the yoke of communism. So, for me, I was just fascinated. Had never visited—I mean that was kind of a curious thing, to make a proposal to a country that I'd never been before—but I did my homework, I did research, and I absolutely loved it. 

I felt like I was better connected to the culture and the people than I was in Vienna when I was there several years ago, because we more kind of self-contained as a US group. So that's part of the reason I think I was able to develop some good friendships with faculty there. 

Julie: 

Yeah. So we'll talk about the classes you taught in a little bit, but let's talk about what kind of research were you kind of focused on trying to get done while you were there? I know you did a lot of traveling and that sort of thing.

 Kevin Simpson: 

 

I did, yep. The research was actually secondary because it was exclusively a teaching fellowship. So my expectation was to do well in the classroom. So I taught sport psychology and then psychology of the Holocaust but, in my preparations for the Holocaust course, I came across one line in a fairly recent encyclopedia of camps and ghettos. This was put out by the Holocaust museum in D.C. And this one line, I highlighted, held onto it, and I knew I would come back to it because I thought, this would be a conversation to open up when I get there. And so the one line mentioned that in 1940-41, about 250 Jewish laborers helped build a soccer stadium. And this again didn't happen that often. Yes, there were labor camps all over Europe, but to build a soccer stadium, this caught my eye. 

So just a little factoid in there, and I thought, “Okay, I need to travel to this stadium.” It's up in the northwest, it's actually on the road, the route between Bratislava and Auschwitz. I mean, it seems like every train route ends up there, unfortunately, when you talk about this history. But it was the last transit stop before, in fact, Poland. And it was a work camp associated with it, and was only open for a few months, a few years, and visited the stadium, went to a match. It was a chilly February day, walked around and realized this is the same stand, the same grandstand that was built in 1942. 

And apparently a Jewish survivor back in the 90s tried to pursue a memorial plaque and it didn't get anywhere because, at that time, it was a much more nationalistic reason. The Prime Minister I was talking about, Tiso, I'm sorry the President back in the day, he's from this area. So it's still—again, has a more conservative bit to it, but I was shocked to see the stand still there. They had updated and it was a full 360 degree stadium, but these concrete stands were still there. I thought, this is worth pursuing a little farther. So- 

 Julie:

 So let's talk about that, yeah. 

 Kevin Simpson: 

Yeah. I guess in a brash America sort of way I was, I had done again some more due diligence, but I sent a letter to the President of the club--there's just one gentleman who owns the team--and asked, "Hey, did you know this history, here's some additional research we found out since maybe a few years ago, would you be open to a meeting?" And got a pretty quick reply, met with him, and I think he'd already made up his mind to do the plaque before we had met.

 Julie:

 Had he known the history of that-?

 Kevin Simpson:

 He did, he did. 

 Julie:

 Okay.

 Kevin Simpson: 

 Yeah. But there was enough recent information through testimonies and a few other documents that it felt more reliable, basically, the information that was coming forward. Before I met with him though, I want to say that I carefully consulted with the Jewish community leader there in this town called Jelena, and then also some historians. So, I wasn't just, again, you know floating this balloon to pursue my own goal here. But yeah, I was pleasantly surprised. Very gracious man, he spoke English thankfully, and yeah, within a month we got a plaque fabricated, back in Bratislava, they took it up and installed it and we had about two weeks before my departure, the dedication ceremony. So it was ... I had people praying for it, I put this in my blog, so people were tuned into this back home in the States and it just came along. But there were ... I think enough people had done enough work earlier that I was kind of-

 Julie:

 Yeah, just building on some of the groundwork, and for that, so, yeah. 

 Kevin Simpson:

 But it had stayed kind of without any momentum for probably 20 years. I just came along at the right time, I think. 

 Julie: 

 Yeah, and then you--there was press coverage for the dedication ceremony-

 Kevin Simpson:

 Yeah, that was kind of cool. 

 Julie:

 And we got a little alert from a Slovakian news channel or whatever, I didn't understand a word they said, but, there was you.

 Kevin Simpson: 

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because, again, it was so interesting. I think of it somewhat providentially in that there were enough people who were connected to this project, the local footballing community, the Jewish community, historians, that the word got out. Slovakia's not a very big country. My friend Mikal talks about Bratislava's kind of being a small town in that regard. 

But a little side note to this: it's probably mid-February, weather's starting to clear up, winters are cold in central Europe, but I was focused on finding some pick-up soccer on Saturday so I walked some neighborhoods, some fields where I thought I might find a game, and, low and behold, I found some older gentlemen, about my age, playing pick-up soccer in this small kind of court. It was like futsal, it was beautiful. And they took chance on me, I said "Hey can I play?" One or two of them spoke English, and I could show that I could still play at an advanced age and I got invited back. So I played all spring with them. But the guy who I initially met was actually a sports broadcaster. 

 Julie:

 Oh wow, okay.

 Kevin Simpson:

 Or in Bratislava. So he was one of the kind of communication points to other news networks, along with the Fulbright foundation there as well. So it was just each of these little connections--

 Julie:

 God kind of providentially brings this little people into your path.

 Kevin Simpson:

 And I found out a week ago that Mikal was interviewed by his wife, so this sports broadcasters wife is a journalist, about our potential, I'll talk about this later, about our potential exhibit project we're going to do next summer. I don't know if I told you about this-

 Julie:

Uh-uh, no.

 Kevin Simpson:

Based on my book but also the Slovak stories that we're starting to learn more about. We're going to hopefully open a, in next June, a Soccer Under The Swastika exhibit there, Mikal's going to take the lead, he works for the museum of Jewish culture, so.

 Julie:

 Wow.

 Kevin Simpson:

 Very exciting, I might go back actually this winter to work on the project--

 Julie:

 Yeah.

 Kevin Simpson:

 Do some research.

 Julie:

 Very cool.

 Kevin Simpson:

 Yeah.

 Julie:

 So tell us a little bit about, you taught two classes while you were there, and I kind of forgot the name of the University-

 Kevin Simpson:

 Comenius.

 Julie:

 Comenius. Okay.

 Kevin Simpson:

 Comenius University.

 Julie:

 What were those classes? Are those classes you teach at JBU--

 Kevin Simpson:

 They were, yeah.

 Julie:

 Okay.

 Kevin Simpson:

 

They were adapted, so, in fact I kind of had to simplify them, partly because of that language challenge, I was working actually with graduate students who spoke English at least as a second language. Some of them spoke three or four languages, I learned later. Sports psychology was one, I tried to make that really applied, so a lot of what we were working on were practical skill based kinds of things. Some of them were coaches, some of them former athletes, some were just interested in the topic and wanted to hear an American teach it. And then psychology of the Holocaust, which was much more closely modeled on the course I taught here, but all the prep I did had to bring forward pre-war and during the war and histories there that were unique to Slovakia because Slovakia again, early on, collaborated pretty intensely, and then around 1944 when the Soviets were coming flipped and resisted. 

So the Nazis actually came in and occupied, so that's more the heroic story that many Slovaks remember is that resistance, because people, thousands gave their lives but the greater story, frankly, is the collaboration. That's a hard one to wrestle with. The- 

 Julie:

 Yeah, and how is that? Because, you know, when we talk about the Holocaust here in the U.S., we weren't directly--I mean, yes--

 Kevin Simpson:

 We're liberators.

 Julie:

 We're liberators.

 Kevin Simpson:

 Yes, yes, exactly.

 Julie: 

 So we weren't experiencing that, we get to play the hero a little bit. We're not part of that evil side of that. So how are the students, how did they react to those stories?

 Kevin Simpson:

 

Well, they're the grandchildren and when you talk about that third generation they're more likely to ask the harder questions. This is even true in places like Germany and Austria. So for many of them, they had heard some of the glorious accounts, the resistance, maybe they had a grandparent who was involved in some way. But what they've wrestled with in the years since are the same pressures that we've dealt with I think as a country in terms of what to do with new immigrant group. Economic pressures, all of that, and fundamentally they, they were aware of some of the collaboration but it had been down played. For many of them, what they're more likely to tune into is the communist era because it lasted so much longer. 

 Julie:

 Right. 

 Kevin Simpson: 

 

And so what you get is a different kind of revisionism of the WWII era but also the communist era and, for many of them, they're more effected, frankly, by the communists. Their parents lived through it and, on occasion—it's usually the older generation—they'll reflect more glowingly on the era, as less complicated. It's the strangest thing because as an American hearing that I'm thinking "Do you not realize what you had missed?" And of course they did, but they tend to be more impacted by the communists. So, some of them were aware of the kind of rise of the right wing, this is true throughout Europe, and that's more of what they're tuned into. 

In fact there's right wing party that's adopted some of the fascist symbolism of that era. What was it called, the Hlinka Guard was the equivalent of the SS and they were the ones who would run the camps and deport people and there's kind of a revival of that in some circles. Especially more conservative traditionalists areas in Slovakia. 

 Julie: 

 Mm-hmm. So what else from your time there was really impactful? I know you had visiting time, you had lots of time to go to soccer matches, you met up with some JBU alumni-

 Kevin Simpson: 

 I did. Strangest thing, yeah. 

 Julie: 

 Actually, even, too, what were some of the other just outside of the classroom or your research times that kind of impacted you?

 Kevin Simpson: 

 

I was able to travel and it’s so strange, frankly. The traveling is kind of, what's the word I'm looking for, in a cheeky sort of way called Holocaust tourism. Because I was so close to Ukraine, I had a JBU connection there, a missions family who works with special needs families there, and through this student I asked "Hey, would your parents be open?" And she invited me actually, she grew up in Kiev, and so February I took a trip to Kiev and toured some of the Holocaust sites. The Holocaust was particularly brutal there, but what was a nice kind of balance to that is the other opportunities to travel in Europe. Budapest. 

Stephanie, my wife, came to visit during spring break so we got to go to Greece, that was a highlight, it was a kind of second honeymoon sort of thing, that was really wonderful. That was a nice break, because you get so immersed in suffering that these breaks are nice. And then toward the end I got to go to Ireland as well for the first time. These little breaks in between. 

But in-country I think the things that were most impactful were the day to day relationships. So I developed a nice friendship with my colleague, she actually shared her office with me. She teaches counseling, clinical sort of areas, she's an expert in an area called Adlerian psychology. Adler was a kind of a colleague or cohort of Freud's back in the day and, we're actually going to design another study abroad, Dr Lanker and I, in theology to go back to Switzerland and take part of our group to Vienna and Bratislava now and she's going to do workshop for us. 

So I think what I enjoyed most were those times where I could get to know the colleagues better, meals together, spent Easter with her and her family, it was just wonderful. I felt like I wasn't so isolated. But travel enough again, some of it was soccer related, traveling to more rural arts, but early on a trip to the north, I mean people don't know Slovakia, but there's an area in the north with a border with Poland called the Tatras, the high and low Tatras mountains, and they're beautiful. They're as beautiful as anything I've seen in Colorado or even the Alps, surprisingly. People can never make it to that little corner of Europe, I highly recommend it, it's staggeringly beautiful. 

 Julie:

 So besides teaching here at JBU you're very involved, you do visiting lectures, various places, workshops, conferences on the Holocaust, and you even do some stuff. You work with a conference here in Arkansas that kind of focuses on high school students and teaching them about the Holocaust. Why do you think that's so important for us to expand on, because yeah our kids get it in a blip, you know, in their history classes in college, to expand on that with our young adults.

 Kevin Simpson: 

 

What we love about doing this annual conference, it's usually November or later October, but the people who've started it were educators, so they were in the high schools and middle schools and they realized there was such a gap in the way we taught this history that this was a great way to bring survivors forward and have them tell their stories and of course we're coming to the end of the age of the survivors, so the stories are more and more rare to hear. But they again welcomed me very early on, I found out who they were when I first started here and started attending their meetings, but the students never fail us. When you hear the questions they ask of survivors, after a survivor talk, or after a session on propaganda or Holocaust memoir testimony, they never fail us. They're curious about this history. They may not know much about it, but for them it's the narrative that really captures them. And so if they can read, even beyond an Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel, they start to realize that these stories resonate in a way that I don't think will ever diminish. 

Now our memories of the events may diminish, we may get farther and farther away, that's one thing I worry about. We might as well be talking about the American Revolution sometimes, it seems so remote to them, but the students never fail us. And they're genuinely curious and they want to understand how this could happen, why, they learn eventually that ordinary people were involved, it wasn't just the evil Nazi. And for them it's through the story telling. 

The only thing I want to add is that the contemporary issues of division, how to approach difference, these show up very readily in the history of the Holocaust. And again for me as a Christian it's compelling to talk about the origins of anti-Semitism in Christianity, but also talk about what people did during the war to fight that atrocity. We talk about the rescuers certainly, but the people who were resistors through their faith, Bonhoeffer's the most maybe famous example. But for us as educators the issues don't necessarily change that much. I mean why we're maybe afraid of an immigrant group coming from Syria or something. Or JBU students were addressing that a few months ago. These issues don't seem to go away. 

 Julie: 

 Right, right. 

 Kevin Simpson: 

 They're always present, it seems. 

 Julie: 

 And you've actually—so a couple years ago—you and Trisha Posey, who is one of our history professors and director of our honor programs, you guys developed an honors colloquium course—did I even say that right?—called becoming, is it becoming evil?

 Kevin Simpson: 

 Mm-hmm.

 Julie: 

 Tell us a little bit about that class and what you guys were kind of trying to accomplish with that. Because it's outside your normal psychology department or history department, it was any of the honors students.

 Kevin Simpson: 

 

The primary reader we use for that course is actually written by a socio-psychologist who's one of the foremost genocide experts. The reason why we thought this course would be great to develop together is that our students, especially in the honors program, come from different discipline areas. A few from psychology, history, English, all of that. And for us it was a way to address an aspect of the fall but also redemption. When, for instance, you consider the theoretical explanations, the research we have, to explain why ordinary people get involved, Waller's book does a great job at that, and coincidentally he's actually a believer himself. He's professing Christian but he gets right at the heart of why killing, when it happens on this scale, is almost a 1:1 enterprise. And for students to wrap their head around that, that's a tricky proposition. 

We know about gas chambers, we know about mass shootings, but you start to look at the 1:1 killing—for instance, in Rwanda—and that staggers the imagination. What is it about human nature that allows us to have that vulnerability? So the redemptive side of it showed up really well in our recent trip to Guatemala. We taught the course for the second time I think last fall, and we talked about potential study abroad weekend, we did it over fall break, and it's because we have the wonderful connection of Joe Walenciak, on campus here to Guatemala. But there's a group called FAFG, it's a Guatemalan MGO that does forensic work. So they'll exhume mass graves, do the DNA analysis, and identify people who had been missing. There were thousands, something like 40,000 missing after the Guatemalan civil war. So long story short, we can look at redemption as it plays out in the court systems, we can look at it on the 1:1 when a family can claim a missing family member and maybe have a proper burial and remembrance of that person, so. 

Probably the most moving experience we had last October was to stand over a mass grave and have, not necessarily a specific remembrance, but a more general one to think about what happened in this place, it was a former military base, and to also look across the grounds and see the memorial that the FAFG put up. So we went to their labs in Guatemala City, very humbling experience, because they had skeletons out on the table they were identifying which included a couple of children. So very moving experience, but it's a way again to look at the worst of humanity but also these efforts to try to redeem it, to see how God is working through a justice system that sometimes doesn't work well. In places like Guatemala, so. 

 Julie: 

 Yeah, there's an article that talks more about that trip in the Impact academic journal that we do, so we'll put a link to that in the show notes. It's a really good article. And we got some pictures and stuff, too. So obviously the Holocaust, and it's not the only subject, but it's a really tough subject. You even talked about kind of needing that break when you were in Slovakia. And a lot of people, I think, shy away, you know, because they're just like, “I can't deal with it. I don't want to watch that film, or I don't want to read that book, or I don't want to go to that lecture.” What do you tell people who kind of come back with that?

 Kevin Simpson: 

 Suck it up. No, I'm kidding. I'm completely kidding. What we try to do, I think in the way I think about Holocaust education but also genocide education is that, there are going to be different entry points. And some people may shy away. I don't want—we don't want—to make them uncomfortable, we don't want to put this in their face and demand their attention, but honestly without again trying to apply a guilt trip here, part of the reason why evil runs amuck is that too many people are indifferent. And so for me the theme that I come back to in these courses is the bystander effect. What makes it so easy for us to turn a blind eye. Sometimes there's a threat, there's a danger to us if you're living in these times, it's easy to look back in hindsight and say why didn't you do something different. But it's just too easy I think to turn a blind eye. In many ways I'm talking to myself because I can easily tune out what's happening in places like Syria or Burma, Sudan-

 Julie: 

 You feel kind of helpless. Like, "What can I do?"

 Kevin Simpson: 

 

Sure, what can I do? It's 6000 miles away. One of the things that was very impactful, there's a gentleman named Sam Taughten over at U of A. He's a retired prof there, but he does humanitarian work in Sudan. In fact, it's great risk to himself, he'll sneak in aide supplies. Rice, beans, that sort of stuff. And most recent trip that he did this, he actually had to be Medivac'd out. 

But our group, our first honors colloquium group, met with him and he did a nice little lecture about what he does, and it let to one of those students actually studying genocide at the grad level. So for a few students this can be really impactful stuff, longer term, but our hope is that just people will be tuned into what's going on around them. Again, myself included, its easy to tune this stuff out. 

 Julie: 

 Yeah, yeah. You kind of hinted at something so we're going to come back to it. You had an experience during one of those fellowships at the US Holocaust museum that kind of drives a lot of what you got into, you want to tell us about that.

 Kevin Simpson: 

 Yeah, again, I don't mean to be melodramatic about this, but it was profound. So it was a two week seminar. By the second week we were very familiar with our setting, each other, the discussions were flowing really well. Each midday point about 12 we'd break for lunch, there'd be a catered lunch brought in, it was all very nice. But one particular day, it was probably 12-12:20, we were running a little late, discussion carried on, we were this pop pop pop. And two or three of the people who had a police background jumped up, not in alarm, but they immediately started to assess the situation. Th others of us were just kind of looking around thinking what's going on, it sounded like a metal car was going down the stairs. And it very quickly became apparent to us that something had happened at the front door of the museum. So very quickly doors were locked, we were huddled under tables, people were trying to get in our room, that was kind of strange that we would just keep the door locked but of course this is what you do when you're locked down.

 Julie: 

 This is what you do, yeah. This is-

 Kevin Simpson: 

 

And we learned pretty quickly that white supremacists who had an online presence of hate basically had walked up of the front door with a long rifle and shot into the glass. The man who opened the door for him, thinking he was a guest, his name's Steven Johns, was shot. So we were there for probably an hour, eventually made our way back to our hotel, we were processing kind of decompressing. But as we came out of the subway stop to walk to our hotel, we passed the hospital where both gunman and guard were being ambulanced in. And what was striking about it was the, and kind of again this sounds a little corny but it's genuine, the rainbow of colors of people helping the white supremacist, to try to save his life, and they did save his life for a time. He died a few months later because he was 89, and was in poor health, but it was just a reminder, this was the first time this had happened, the museum had been open for probably 16 years at that point- 

 Julie: 

And this was a while ago too, I mean we've kind of gotten-

 Kevin Simpson: 

 This was 10 years ago. 

 Julie: 

 So used to this, but back then, even 10 years ago, these, you know, shootings that seem all too common now, they were much more rare, but ...

 Kevin Simpson: 

 

Yeah. And so the man, the guard lost his life. He had helped us each day to come in, put us through the metal detector which is still there, but I passed by actually just on Friday afternoon, there's a picture of Steven Johns in memoriam with a bit of blurb, a little narrative of what happened that day. But it had such an impact on me that I dedicated my book actually to him, because of the impact there, so yeah. 

 Julie: 

 Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you so much for coming in and talking to us about this, I wish I had more time I could take your classes.

 Kevin Simpson: 

 Speaking of that.

 Julie:

 Speaking of that, oh okay. 

 Kevin Simpson:

 This is not a plug necessarily but as a way to kind of talk about counter balance. Again, when students for instance psychology, we talk about the you know, different elective sort of options. One, personally one balance to that would be the course on the psychology genus that I get to teach this fall.

 Julie: 

 Oh, fun. 

 Kevin Simpson:

 I'm pretty excited about that, I haven't taught that in I think four years, four or five years. It's a way again to look at the best of humanity across again literature, science, culture and so on, so. These are necessary options, and I've been grateful to JBU. I've had the freedom to delve into these topics very deeply and the support to go travel and do a full ride as I did last spring, so. Very happy to be here.

 Julie:

 Yeah, and Kevin's done a couple of the podcasts so we'll link to those on the show notes page and articles and books and all of that sort of stuff, so thanks so much for being on.

 Kevin Simpson:

 Thank you. Enjoyed it. 

 Julie: 

 Thanks for listening to this episode of JBU stories. Visit jbu.edu/stories for a transcript of today's show, links, and show notes. Be sure to subscribe to JBU stories on iTunes, and we'd love it if you would leave us a review.