Leveraging Religious Insularity and Civil Indifference to Commit Genocide: Learnings from Our Study Abroad Course in Poland

Author: Erin Drumm

Note: Every year, Dr. Charles Powell offers three lectures on religion, focusing on the Abrahamic faiths, during a summer course on international law and the Holocaust. The course, which is held in Poland, is led by Dr. Emilia Powell, professor of political science and Ansari Institute faculty fellow.

Polish native and leader of the Catholic Church for nearly three decades, Pope John Paul II said, “War is a defeat for humanity.”

On Notre Dame’s study abroad program in Poland this summer, we found this to be true. Seeing the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Stutthof Concentration Camps and hearing the stories of those imprisoned there made manifest that simple truth: “War is a defeat for humanity.”

Erin Drumm, her classmates, and Professors Charles Powell and Emilia Justyna Powell at the Westerplatte monument in Gdańsk, Poland.
Erin Drumm, her classmates, and Professors Charles Powell and Emilia Justyna Powell at the Westerplatte monument in Gdańsk, Poland.

Throughout our three week journey in Poland we discussed the history of World War II and Poland as a country, while also discovering how to turn our empathy and education into action, not just information.

We walked the streets of Warsaw, which was completely destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. It has since been rebuilt by the people of the city.

We saw the brick chimneys that remain where wood barracks were burned by Nazis trying to destroy evidence of their horrific crimes at the Birkenau Death Camp.

We stood at Westerplatte, where World War II began on September 1, 1939 in front of the sign reading “Nigdy Więcej Wojny” meaning “No More War.”

Vladimir Putin stood there in 2009. Today, he wages war against Poland’s neighbor, Ukraine. He often uses religious rhetoric to promote violence and justify territorial acquisitions.

Agnieszka Dąbrowiecka from Amnesty International Poland spoke to us about the effect the war in Ukraine has had on their country. Over 1.5 million refugees are living in Poland, posing overcrowding problems to the nation. Ukrainian children have encountered great difficulty in schools where their native language is not spoken. Poland, however, Dąbrowiecka said, has welcomed the refugees and sought to help the people of Ukraine as much as possible, turning their empathy to action.

We explored not only Polish history, but also Polish life. In Grudziądz, we gave presentations at a primary school and shared different aspects of American culture with the students, connecting about favorite holidays, animals, and books, despite our language barrier. We spent time with Professor Emilia Justyna Powell’s parents and learned about her childhood under communism.

Class in Poland
Professor Emilia Justyna Powell offers a lecture to students in a park.

When speaking about the Holocaust we learned about perspectives and aspects of the genocide that had never been discussed in our classroom educations, focusing on how Hitler used the law and religious beliefs to create a society increasingly hostile to the Jewish population. He began by limiting Jewish rights to participation in public life, followed by the Nuremberg Laws. As a result of the utilization of legal authority, people saw the laws as legitimate and became hostile towards Jewish people, and eventually grew indifferent to their suffering, making the horrors of the Holocaust possible. Moreover, Hitler used religion to promote discrimination. For example, the National Reich Church was created in 1936 by an agglomeration of several Protestant churches. These churches excluded Jewish teaching from the Old Testament and forbade the baptizing of Jews. Some churches went further and displayed swastikas in the church buildings and around the altars. Hitler also contorted the Christian faith in an effort to promote his own self-glorification.

We learned how important it is to speak up against laws and protest any efforts at twisting religious beliefs, which in turn may prevent people from expressing their full human dignity. Most importantly, indifference is a danger to us all. As citizens of the world, we have a duty to remain vigilant, in preventing those behaviors that allowed the Holocaust to occur.