On Poland trip, students reflect on religion, international law, and violence

Author: Josh Stowe

Here, students are seen outside the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland. The course enabled them to explore religion and its connections to international law.

This summer, Charles W. Powell and Emilia Justyna Powell taught a summer study abroad course that challenged students to learn about atrocities such as genocide and crimes against humanity—including the Holocaust—in the context of international law, and to explore the role religion has played in international law.

The three-week class took 16 students to Poland, where they visited historical sites and discussed a variety of topics relating to international law, international crimes and religion. It drew on the academic expertise of the husband-and-wife team: Charles is a faculty member at the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion, and Emilia, an incoming faculty fellow for the Ansari Institute, serves as professor of political science and concurrent professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. 

Among other topics strictly related to the history and development of international law, the experience introduced students to the role of narrative empathy in international law; the role of religion in international law and in the Holocaust; and the roles the Catholic and Protestant churches played in Nazi Germany. It pushed participants to read and reflect on the horrors of genocide. 

As part of the course, students spent a week each in Kraków, in Warsaw, and in Gdańsk and Sopot. They visited many sites of historical significance, including the former Jewish district in Krakow; the Auschwitz/Birkenau and Stutthof concentration camps; and multiple museums, including one memorializing Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved approximately 1,200 Jews from the Nazi death camps by employing them in his factories. Additionally, to expand the course's focus beyond the Holocaust, students visited the Katyń Museum that commemorates the events of the 1940 Katyń massacre, where Soviet forces conducted mass executions, killing more than 20,000 Polish people. 

Powells Walsea
Charles Powell and Emilia Justyna Powell visit with former Solidarity leader, Polish president, and Nobel laureate Lech Wałęsa.

Students also visited the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk, which chronicles the history of the Solidarity movement in 1980s Poland. The movement promoted worker’s rights and helped to end Communist rule in the country. They met with Lech Wałęsa, the former Solidarity leader who went on to serve as president of Poland and ultimately won the Nobel Peace Prize. The visit provided an opportunity to hear him share his vision for a new Europe. 

Through a creative combination of experiential visits and dedicated time for reading, writing, journaling and discussion, the Powells encouraged students to reflect meaningfully on the need to promote and support international law, as well as on how religion, narrative empathy, and dialogue can promote human dignity and sustainable peace in an interconnected world. 

“In this course, we focus on the modern implications of interreligious dialogue to ensure that our societies foster integral human development and prevent atrocities.”

“In this course, we focus on the modern implications of interreligious dialogue between Jews, Christians, and Muslims to ensure that our societies foster integral human development, and prevent atrocities,” Charles said. “On the one hand, a lack of understanding and trust between these religious groups increases the likelihood of hostility or prejudice against each other. On the other hand, understanding and trust can lead to much needed collaboration and human solidarity.”

“The atrocities of the Second World War prompted the development of international criminal law and the regulation of heinous crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity,” Emilia said. “Understanding these events is crucial to the development of any student at Notre Dame, especially that such atrocities are still taking place across the globe. The proximity to Ukraine made the students’ experiences in Poland that much more real.”