Students at a middle school in northern Italy were faced on a recent morning by a chilling announcement: under new directives from the government in Rome, immigrant children or those with a non-Italian parent would, effective immediately, be segregated in separate classes and at the end of the year would have to pass a special exam to prove they had assimilated Italian language and culture.
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While the foreign students dejectedly packed their bags, their Italian classmates jumped to their friends’ defense. Some walked out in protest, others demanded to see the principal or started drafting an angry letter to the education ministry.
Then came the reveal. There was no new rule: it had all been a simulation to teach children about the anti-Semitic laws passed by Italy’s fascist regime in 1938, and push the students to ask themselves what should be done when populist, racist and authoritarian rulers attempt to discriminate against minorities.
The experiment involved around a hundred 13- and 14-year-olds at the “Sandro Pertini” middle school in the northwestern town of Vercelli. It took place on January 27, to coincide with international Holocaust Remembrance Day, but only came to light this week, when local media reported it.
“We felt that taking the kids to see a movie about the Holocaust was not the best way to pass on the memory of those events,” vice principal Patrizia Pomati told Haaretz in a telephone interview. “These movies are often so violent and emotionally distressing that the children cannot relate to them, they just say: ‘this could never happen to me.’”
Carolina Vergerio, who teaches literature, history and geography, said she came up with the idea of a fake law when she heard about a similar experiment conducted in a Florence high school, where students were asked to bring a birth certificate to prove whether they were “true Florentines” as part of discussion on identity.
“We thought we could do something a bit stronger, especially in light of the current global climate in which populism, racism and verbal aggressions are becoming everyday occurrences,” Vergerio told Haaretz. “We wanted our students to understand that these events really happened and could happen again.”
The simulation was loosely based on Benito Mussolini’s racial laws, which expelled Jews from schools and universities, as well as major professions and the army.
The experiment centered on foreign children rather than Jews because today in Italy it is immigrants, especially Muslims, who are more likely to be seen as dangerous “invaders,” Vergerio said. Also – while the town has a tiny, centuries-old Jewish community – the school has no Jewish students.
Pomati, the vice principal, said that a few minutes before teachers read the fake law to their students, some twenty foreign children were taken out of class and told about the simulation, in order not to cause them unnecessary distress.
“They were asked not to warn their classmates and they really kept up the act when we made the announcement,” Pomati said. “The other students had a very strong reaction: some followed the foreign students out, others demanded to know under whose authority this was being done.”
After about an hour of protests, the teachers put an end to the simulation and discussed the history of the 1938 laws and more recent cases of discrimination.
“All the kids were relieved, a few were a bit angry for having been put in such a situation,” Pomati said, adding that no parents had complained about the unusual teachable moment.
Students were asked to share their feelings or their reactions on post-its that are now exhibited in the school and on a special Facebook page.
“I was ashamed of being on the wrong side,” wrote one of the Italian-born students. “I told the teacher we should all leave the class because we are all foreigners,” recalled another.
“I didn’t expect such a reaction,” wrote an immigrant student. “They made me understand that in times of need there is someone who cares about me.” The school did not identify the authors of the posts by name.
“It was beautiful to see the children unite and oppose this unjust rule,” said Pomati. “We’ve been working for this for many years.”
She said the students regularly tend to the school’s Garden of the Righteous, part of a global initiative to commemorate those who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II and other victims of crimes against humanity in recent conflicts.
The school is also hosting an exhibition about the “Righteous of Islam” – Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust and are recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, Pomati said.