A transformational experience in Germany and Poland

At the end of April, I had the opportunity to travel to Germany and Poland with a group of nursing and medical faculty champions from the Center for Medicine After the Holocaust.  Its aim is to develop curricula for nursing and medical students throughout the United States to educate them about the atrocities to human beings during the Nazi Regime under Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship. The lessons learned from this trip are almost impossible to put into words. It was a phenomenal journey.

The first part of the trip took place in Berlin, Germany. We attended daily lectures with a German scholar, named Volker Roelke; a British scholar, named Paul Weindling; and an endocrinologist from Texas named Dr. Sheldon Rubenfeld. These three men discussed the socioeconomic, political, and medical issues of this era. I learned a great deal about the historical context of the times. For example, in the early 1900’s, researchers in both Germany and America were studying the science of eugenics. Eugenics is a term that refers to the study of the human species and genetics. It has been viewed as a science that advocates improving the genetic composition of a population. Hitler was especially interested in the science of eugenics, as he believed in creating a Master Race. He wanted to eliminate the weak, or “life unworthy of living” and allow only the strong to survive. Under his reign, the Sterilization Law was passed in 1933. This law allowed compulsory sterilization of any persons suffering from a hereditary disease, including: those with congenital mental deficiencies, schizophrenia, manic-depression (what we now call bipolar depression), hereditary epilepsy, chorea, blindness, deafness, or any severe hereditary deformity, and alcoholism.

I also learned about the euthanasia programs promulgated by Hitler. Euthanasia is a term that literally means “good death.” Hitler unfortunately had a very liberal interpretation of this term to allow killing to those who were not, in his distorted perception, worthy of life. Under his regime, there were six euthanasia centers created between 1940 and 1941. Hitler’s ideal of a Master Race was to use these euthanasia centers to eliminate not only the weak persons, but other races that were, according to him, “racially inferior” – including Roma (gypsies), Slavic peoples, Jewish people, Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals, and criminals. Hence, these “euthanasia” centers were actually killing centers where thousands of people, including many Jews, were sent to be murdered. Hitler’s ultimate goal was the total genocide of the Jewish race. It is inconceivable to anyone how this could have happened; in the end six million Jews were murdered. This period of time came to be known as the Holocaust, which originates from Greek language, meaning “sacrifice by fire.”

The afternoons were filled with tours to differing locations, including a memorial called “Topography of Terror,” two different psychiatric hospitals that institutionalized the mentally ill and ultimately murdered these innocent victims because of Hitler’s desire for the perfect Race. Our group of nurses and physicians actually stood in the gas chamber where thousands of innocent victims were led, under the false belief that they were going to take a shower. Sadly, nurses led these patients to their death, while physicians supervised the gassing. Sixty people at a time were taken to the “showers” and locked in, unable to escape the carbon monoxide poisonings. As a nurse, this was a pivotal moment for me, struggling to understand how anyone of sound mind could do such a horrific act.

We also toured many other memorials, including Sachenshausen Memorial. This was a very large camp which held an infirmary wing where German doctors experimented on prisoners and Jews. One example of a horrific medical experiment that I will never forget is how physicians would intentionally slash a person’s thighs and insert fragments of wood or glass simply to observe tissue healing. Other physicians intentionally injected their victims with typhus, to see how long it would take for the person to become infected.

On Monday, May 2, we left Germany and flew to Oswiecim, Poland, home to the infamous Auschwitz – a very large concentration and death camp. What I did not realize was that Auschwitz is divided into 3 camps:  Auschwitz I,  Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III. We visited Auschwitz I and II, where thousands of Jewish people were deported to and ultimately murdered. Again, words can not possibly make sense of the senseless – imagine being forced out of your home, onto a train with thousands of others, taken to a barracks where you are stripped of your clothes, personal belongings, and dignity.  Husband and wives were separated, often never to see one another again. Women and children were mostly sent immediately to the gas chambers, as they were deemed not strong enough to work. All of the victims’ heads were shaven and they were forced into prison clothing, tattooed, and sent to work hard labor 12 hours a day with little or no food. The day we toured Auschwitz was cold, damp, and rainy. The grey day matched the mood of our tour group, as we grappled to imagine, if only for a brief moment, how the victims of the Holocaust must have experienced fear, isolation, and despair at their terrible fate.

The Germany/Poland trip was a transformational experience for me –  as a nurse, an educator, and a human being. Reading and studying about the history of medical experimentation and crimes during Nazi Germany is critical for health care professionals, but in no way can compare to traveling abroad to witness these atrocities where they actually occurred. I believe that these types of cultural immersions for our future nursing students will prove to be invaluable to enhancing their understanding not only of the historical context of the times, but more importantly, to strengthening their caring of human beings while curing.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Michael Evans, Dean and Professor at Goldfarb School of Nursing at Barnes-Jewish College, has been a champion for the Center for Medicine After the Holocaust since 2009. He spoke about this topic in his keynote address, “When Human Caring Fails,” at the 2011 International Association for Human Caring conference held in San Antonio, Texas.

At the end of December 2011, Dr. Judy Smith will return to Germany and Poland, this time to co-lead a group of nursing students through “The Holocaust in Europe.” The tour is through EF College Study Tours, a faculty-led international program.

5 thoughts on “A transformational experience in Germany and Poland

  1. Thank you Carole! Just an added reminder, we will be going to Germany/Poland at the end of December, sponsored by EF travels. Dr Kevin Mallinson and myself will be the faculty leading the way. As of yesterday, 10 students have signed up for this phenomenal trip! Please check out the website: EFcollegestudytours.com for more details. June 30 was the deadline to lock in the price, but the final enrollment deadline is not until September!
    Judy Smith

  2. If the best physicians of the early twentieth century could abandon their patients, can we, the best physicians of the twenty-first century, be certain that we will not do the same?

  3. I found this post very moving, although I have heard over the years the atrocities that went on in these camps many times it still affects me deeply when you read the experiences of others. It is truly unbelievable how humans can have been conditioned to follow these abhorant orders and inflict such pain and hardship to others.

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