While many students undertake research projects over the summer, Rachael Feuerstein ’16 is using her vacation to pursue a particularly charged subject of study: the social psychology behind the Holocaust. Her project, titled "The Psychology of Evil and Perpetration: A Psychological Analysis of Why and How the Holocaust Happened," under the direction of Professor of Religious Studies Heidi Ravven and funded through a Levitt Center grant, “aims to explain why ‘good’ people do bad things, or more generally, why people can do evil, such as commit mass genocide.”
Feuerstein uncovered her passion for understanding the psychology of the Holocaust in a class with Ravven during the spring of her sophomore year, titled “Self Beyond Itself.” “One particular topic stuck with me - the psychological analysis of the Holocaust,” Feuerstein explains. “We looked at how there really is no ‘self’ because it can be molded and changed by anyone or anything around you. This connects to the soldiers who willingly murdered thousands of Jews in the Holocaust. Their ‘selves’ were changed by the military leaders who instructed them to kill even when they all knew it was wrong.”
This research lies at the disciplinary crossroads between two of Feuerstein’s major academic interests: psychology and religious studies. “This is a very narrow topic,” she says, “one that would not be focused on in either a psychology class or a religious studies class, so the Levitt grant is a wonderful opportunity for me to delve into a new subject using what I’ve learned in class.”
This topic, however, is not just relevant to Feuerstein’s academic interests, but deeply personal as well; a subject that touches upon her Jewish identity and personal experiences. “I have always felt, as I’m sure other Jews feel, that this history hangs over our heads like a dark cloud, always with us. We have been persecuted for thousands of years and that is a part of our identity. ... This past summer (2014) I went to Israel on Birthright. While in Israel, we spent a day at Yad Vashem, the national museum and memorial to the Jews murdered during the Holocaust. I ended up staying in Israel after my trip ended and went back to Yad Vashem to spend more time there. (It) was beyond moving.”
In addition to Yad Vashem, Feuerstein has also visited Berlin’s Jewish Museum and Holocaust Memorial, as well as the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. These experiences profoundly informed Feuerstein’s drive to study, and ultimately understand, the Holocaust.
However, the answers that Feuerstein craves may not come easily. “Professor Ravven would always say in class that the more you study the Holocaust, the less you understand it, Feuerstein said. “At first I didn’t believe that that could be true, but now I clearly understand what she meant. The Holocaust is something I will probably never fully understand or grasp… I hope to gain of better understanding of how and why this happened but I also know that with my research, I am more likely to question everything. I hope to present ways to avoid this from happening again and how we can stop it when it does,”she remarked. “And I hope others will see my findings and understand how vulnerable we are as a society, and how we all need to do our part to prevent this from ever happening again,” she concluded.
Feuerstein is a native of Alpharetta, Ga., and a graduate of Alpharetta High School.