Sunday, April 2, 2017

My Reaction to Studying at Auschwitz: Accepting Emotional Detachment

Memorial at Auschwitz II Birkenau

Reflecting on my week in Poland leaves me feeling conflicted. I’ve been told that this trip normally takes an emotional toll on those who undertake it. Yet for me, I was able to remain detached from the emotional weight of the subjects we explored as a class. This reaction is not a surprise to me; I knew going into the trip that it would not affect me in the way I was warned about. My conflicted feeling comes from the fact that some of my peers have expressed their personal struggle with working through the emotions that come from being immersed in Holocaust studies.

This does make me wonder sometimes why I do not connect to the reality of what occurred like so many other people do. I will probably always feel some undercurrent of conflict because of this. However, I don’t think experiencing emotional detachment from a historical event even as tragic and permanently affecting as the Holocaust should be assigned a negative connotation.

After speaking with a number of my peers who studied abroad with me, I came to realize that I am not alone in my reaction. A few of us processed our experience as strictly a learning endeavor and felt some type of uncomfortable expectation to be more emotional. No one actually expressed this expectation to us; I want to be clear about that. It was more of a nonexistent expectation that we formed of ourselves based on anecdotal accounts we’d heard and being repeatedly warned about the potential to be unexpectedly emotional. When traveling abroad to study at Auschwitz, you’ll find that nearly everyone you tell will express some form of this warning.

A lake at Auschwitz II Birkenau where ashes of victims were laid

 One night in Poland, our entire group got together to reflect on our first day at Auschwitz. I kept feeling from different people’s reflections that multiple people felt some level of shame for not being more emotional. I didn’t think this was right and I had to speak up just to assure people that there’s nothing wrong with processing the experience in a more analytical manner. I doubt it changed anything, but I just didn’t like that any of us should feel self-aimed feelings of negativity during a time that will be impactful and remembered for the rest of our lives.

This night was the beginning of my interest in this issue of varying reactions to Holocaust studies at Auschwitz. It’s something I’ve continued to think about since returning from Poland, prompting me to eventually write this blog post.

My hope is that any students embarking on this amazing trip in the future who read this will know that there is no shame in one’s reaction to an experience as complex as this. Whether you feel a storm of emotions that refuses to set your mind free, or simply a tame curiosity in the factual details of the Holocaust’s history, embrace your reaction as a manifestation of your own mind’s ability to process difficult confrontations with human nature and history, and learn something new about yourself.

By Michael Coppola


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