ROCKET Project’s 2016 Overseas Study TourAttending Cybathlon and visiting Auschwitz to think about human beings, handicaps, and the idea of eugenics

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The six ROCKET scholars who participated in the study tour

Six students, ranging from 6th to 10th grade who are enrolled in the ROCKET Project for talented children, took part in an overseas study tour from October 6 to 9 to Switzerland, Germany, and Poland. The group attended the Cybathlon event in Zurich, and toured the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and the Hadamar psychiatric hospital in Germany, which was used by Nazi Germany as a euthanasia center for people with disabilities during World War II. The purpose of the trip was to encourage the students to think about a range of issues including disabilities and the idea of eugenics.

The project announced the study tour in September and collected applications based on the theme of “Thinking about modern civilization while touring Cybathlon and Auschwitz.” Of the 28 project participants (“scholars”), 12 submitted applications explaining why they wanted to participate and what they wanted to learn. Four scholars who joined the program in its first year and two who joined in the second year were chosen.

Attending the first Cybathlon

The Cybathlon is an event in which athletes with physical impairments use the latest robotics and other technologies to compete in terms of speed and accuracy. This was the first time the event was held, and 66 teams from more than 20 countries competed. Three teams from Japan participated with support from The Nippon Foundation.
The scholars, some of whom want to become scientists or engineers, were transfixed by the cutting-edge technologies on display.

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Teams (technicians and a pilot) from Japan answered the scholars’ questions

Auschwitz concentration camp

Next, the scholars toured the Auschwitz concentration camp near Krakow in southern Poland, where more than one million, mostly Jewish, people were killed by Nazi Germany during World War II between 1940 and 1945.

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A room that housed Jewish prisoners (left) Replica of a train that brought prisoners to the camp (right)

As they toured the grounds, the scholars asked the local guide about Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to die in the place of another inmate, and the chemicals used in the gas chamber. After the tour, the guide commented that the scholars asked questions that adults had not and he was hard-pressed for answers, and that he wished he had more time to talk with them.

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Quietly touring the grounds, listening to the guide’s explanation

Hadamar psychiatric hospital

Located on a hill in Hadamar, a town of 12,000 people in west-central Germany, this is the site where more than 10,000 people with intellectual and physical disabilities were deemed “incurable” under the Aktion 4 euthanasia program, and executed in a gas chamber during January to August 1941. Today the hospital houses a memorial with pictures of the victims and the preserved underground gas chamber, operating table, and crematorium.

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Town of Hadamar, seen from the cemetery where victims are buried (left) Propaganda poster warning that people with disabilities would eventually outnumber non-disabled people and become a burden on the economy (middle) Operating table where brains were removed from corpses for research, and gold teeth were extracted for the gold (right)
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Listening to the volunteer guide

One of the students was so shocked by what he saw that he vomited. The students were also interested in the fact that even though no official, legal framework was put in place, the euthanasia program lasted for a long time and had a broad scope.

Wrap-up discussion

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A state of a hot debate

On the final day, the students discussed their impressions from the trip. They talked about the repugnance of the idea of eugenics and the pros and cons of using technology to turn people into cyborgs, occasionally standing up and gesturing to make their points. One of the students said, “The students in this program may have trouble adapting to society. I know that I can cause difficulty when I can’t control myself. Even so, I want to stay as I am instead of being controlled by technology.”

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