In May 2019, John Brown University professor Dr. Kevin Simpson helped install a memorial plaque for the victims of the Holocaust in Slovakia and recently received an award for his efforts.
Simpson and his colleague Michal Vanek, Ph.D., worked with different organizations in Zilina, Slovakia, to place the plaque honoring 250 Jewish forced laborers who helped build parts of the Stadion pod Dubnom (stadium under Duben Hill ), according to a press release issued by JBU in December 2019.
The two professors also worked on an exhibition “Football under the Swastika: The Story of Leopold ‘Jim’ Stastny” at the Museum of Jewish Culture housed in the Slovak National Museum.
Two and a half years later, Simpson and Vanek received the honorary Julius Hirsch Award on Nov. 22 in Frankfurt, Germany, for their work, the press release said.
“So many people who worked in places like this, in camps and factories in private places ended up being nameless and perished,” Simpson said. “So it was a way of at least having just that moment where we could recognize their sacrifice and recognize the serious likelihood that they probably perished.”
teaching on propaganda
Simpson, who is also director of the JBU’s psychology department, taught social psychology, which often included World War II references or examples, he said. The propaganda dealt with mass persuasion and Nazi Germany, Simpson said.
A friend of Simpson’s encouraged him to take his studies a step further and eventually Simpson attended seminars for educators at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.
“I’ve always been interested in World War II since I was a kid,” Simpson said. “It was just a natural connection there. This field lends itself really well to several disciplines: history, psychology, sociology, even economics.”
In 2009, Simpson began his first two-week seminar, he said. During the second week of the seminar, there was an attack on the museum by a white supremacist, Simpson said.
The attack took place on June 10, 2009, and resulted in the death of officer Stephen Tyrone Johns, who lost his life protecting museum visitors and staff, according to ushmm.org.
One of the subway stations leading to the hotel where Simpson was staying was near the hospital where Johns and the shooter were taken.
“It was this interesting contrast because you have this man who spewed hate online, who eventually ended up taking a life, and the guard that he shot and who helped us every day was taken in charge by the same team,” Simpson said.
For Simpson, that story will always be there, he said.
find the link
In 2018, Simpson received a Fulbright US Scholar Grant from the US Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, according to an April 1, 2018 Herald-Leader article.
Simpson used the funds to teach two courses at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, for one semester, the report said. Simpson has taught two courses: Social Psychology of the Holocaust and Sport and Exercise Psychology beginning in February 2019, the article states.
It was during his stay in Slovakia that Simpson heard about the Jewish workers who built the stands at Zilina Stadium.
After reading about it in a Holocaust encyclopedia, Simpson knew he needed to know more about it, he said. Simpson has always been a big football fan and even played for JBU, he said.
On a cold day in March, Simpson took the three- to four-hour train from Bratislava to Zilina and took a walking tour of the stadium, he said.
“You can just tell which parts of the stadium have just been renovated and which part has been around since the 1940s,” Simpson said. “I had seen old photographs from the time and it was clear that the main stand had probably been there for around 80 years or more.”
Simpson sent letters to the Jewish community in Zilina as well as the president of the local football club (known as football in Europe) MSK Zilina, he said. The whole project took just six weeks, Simpson said.
One of the things Simpson wanted to be careful about was not making it a triumph for himself but for the victims, he said. When the plaque was finally installed, Simpson said he felt like a hidden story had finally been publicly acknowledged.
Football in the camps
When Simpson first wrote his book “Soccer Under the Swastika: Stories of Survival and Resistance during the Holocaust”, he came across a photo taken in 1933 shortly after Dachau opened outside Munich from guy without shoes in ragged clothes kicking a soccer ball.
He found this very strange because these were the camps where people were sent to be punished and murdered, Simpson said. As Simpson continued his research, he found more testimonies and photos of what was happening all over Europe.
The project came together quickly and Simpson was able to organize it by country, he said. Simpson has seen how football has captivated countries like Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland and Ukraine, not only outside the context of war, but also during war, he said.
Through football, forced laborers were able to maintain their human dignity and free lives, Simpson said.
“What a lot of people don’t realize in a lot of these camps, especially if there was a work aspect to it, not just the extermination, there was a lot of boredom,” Simpson said. “There was a lot of downtime so it was a way to fill in those hours for the guards for the management, for the prisoners who again maybe had some privilege.”
Many survivors downplayed this part of camp life due to survivor guilt, Simpson said. If a forced laborer was given extra rations, that means someone else was giving up theirs, Simpson said.
Julius Hirsch Honor Award
Simpson and Vanek won the award together for their work on the memorial and exhibit, Simpson said. Winning the award was very rewarding, Simpson said.
Along with Vanek, Simpson said he was very grateful for the kindness of the many people who contributed to the project in Slovakia as well as those who helped piece together the stories and testimonies of forced laborers, Simpson said.
“It was really the power of collaboration,” Simpson said.
In addition to the prize, a cash prize was awarded to Simpson and Vanek. Simpson did not specify the amount awarded, but said he wanted to take the exhibit to Germany and possibly revive some lifeguard-focused projects.
Simpson said being a lifeguard in those days was a very dangerous thing and he would like to tell more of those stories.
For now, Simpson is back teaching at JBU and said he is grateful for all the local support he has received for what he does on campus.
Simpson incorporated much of what he taught in Slovakia into his course load at JBU, he said. In the spring of 2021, he was able to bring in Vanek as a special speaker via Zoom, Simpson said.
Another reason Simpson does what he does is to show JBU students who haven’t had much exposure to people of Jewish culture a bit of what it entails.
“So for me it’s a way of normalizing Jewish history and also because we’re a Christian university helped them see that Christianity is basically grafted onto the Jewish trunk and so we shouldn’t really see them as separate stories,” Simpson said. .