A transformative opportunity: OUWB students and faculty reflect on Auschwitz study trip

This past June, 20 medical students from the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine (OUWB) spent a week in Poland as a part of the school’s Holocaust in Medicine program.

The study trip, part of a first-of-its-kind fully endowed program at a U.S. medical school, was designed to help students learn about Jewish heritage and history and gain a better understanding of the Holocaust and the role of physicians during this tragic time in history.

Dr. Jason Wasserman, co-director of OUWB’s Holocaust and Medicine program and associate professor of Foundational Medical Studies, states that this trip is more than just a lesson on the history of the Holocaust.

“I think it’s perhaps not the history that’s most important — it’s wrestling with the ethical questions on both sides,” Wasserman said. “The perpetrator historiography and the historiography of victims — including physicians who work in those circumstances and the history is just sort of the necessary medium through which to wrestle with those kinds of questions.

Wasserman, Dr. Hedy Wald — clinical professor of Family Medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and co-director of the program — and Dr. Duane Mezwa — OUWB Stephan Sharf Dean — were part of the group that accompanied students on the study trip.

This program is a part of OUWB’s larger commitment to teaching next-generation physicians the critical role that ethics has in their profession. Already, 80 hours in their curriculum are focused on ethics.

“It sets our school apart, and it sets our doctors apart,” Mezwa said.

During their week abroad, students spent two days in Krakow, where they visited the Remuh Synagogue (Synagoga Remuh), a 16th-century Jewish temple, Remah Cemetery, one of the oldest existing Jewish cemeteries in Poland, Galicia Jewish Museum, Oskar Schindler Factory, among other historical sites.

The remainder of the trip was spent in Oswiecim, home to the sites of the former Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. Students took part in reflective writing sessions, reading testimonials from Holocaust victims, and preparing to present what they have learned from this experience to their communities.

Wasserman believes it is important for medical students to understand that the Holocaust was perpetrated with help from medical professionals.

“There were dozens and dozens of physicians in Auschwitz doing medical experiments — participating in the selection of people for immediate death or for transport to the labor units. So, physicians and medicine were systematically included in the Holocaust. In fact, there’s a quote as early as 1933, Hitler said to a group of physicians, ‘I cannot do this without you.’”

Wasserman adds that some historians have argued that the Holocaust would have “not have happened the way it did” without the participation of healthcare professionals in Germany.

“I think it’s a particularly important history for students to wrestle with because, of course, these are people that swore an oath to take care of patients — and then they obviously violated even the most basic precepts of what we would think of as ethical today in such horrific ways.”

Wasserman also believes that it is just as important to acknowledge physicians and healthcare professionals that showed resistance by providing care for others while in the camps.

“Some of the Jewish physicians in the camps, for example, took care of patients under just unbelievable circumstances. What motivated them? How did they tap into those kinds of virtues? Which is, of course, what we want physicians and other healthcare professionals to do.”

The stories of resilience in the camps resonated with students like Rima Stepanian, who was inspired by the brave and compassionate acts of the imprisoned healthcare workers.

“In the Nazi concentration camps, physicians were some of the highest leaders in the Nazi chain of command, leading the death selections and essentially playing ‘God’ with the lives of innocent people, but there were also many imprisoned Jewish and non-Jewish physicians that helped a lot of people and saved many lives as well,” Stepanian said.  “This dichotomy shows that as doctors we will have the chance to make choices every day and that we must always keep in mind the power and responsibility our titles hold.”

For medical students, the learning didn’t begin and end during their week abroad. As part of their preparation for the study trip, students toured the Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills and will continue to reflect on their experiences in a seven-week post-trip seminar, taken for credit as part of the Medical Humanities and Clinical Bioethics (MHCB) 3 course, in their second year of medical school.

“[The students are] preparing presentations on different topics that are of interest to them and taking those back out into the community,” Wasserman said. “Not only their medical school classmates, but also the wider OU campus and around this metro area –– there will be other opportunities to hear from them [and] about what they learned in the future.”

The OUWB Holocaust in Medicine program may reflect on the past, but it is intended to remind the future of medicine that humanism and compassion should be at the forefront of caring for patients.

“This study trip was harrowing and unforgettable, and for me, it really emphasized the responsibility I have as a medical student and will have as a physician,” Kaycee Fillmore, a second-year medical student, said. “We need to continue the fight for humanism in all aspects of life and particularly in our future occupation of caring for others. As future physicians, we will have choices and influence, and where we direct our energy and compassion matters.”

This inaugural study trip to Auschwitz is expected to become an annual learning opportunity available to OUWB students.

“It really fits with who we are at this school,” Mezwa said.

For more perspectives from OUWB students and faculty, watch this video.