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Monmouth College group travels to Europe to study psychology of the Holocaust

Barry McNamara
During a Monmouth College faculty-led trip in May to study Holocaust sites, Assistant Professor of Psychology Blake Nielsen said he was struck most by a site that had no photos or words.

“There is this large black void that was the centerpiece of this building,” he said of his experience at the Jewish Museum Berlin. “The void was representing all those that were lost during the Holocaust. ... For me, that was one of the more memorable moments – to recognize the magnitude of the Holocaust and the loss of humanity that took place.”

Three dozen students, including five 2017 graduates, accompanied Nielsen on the post-Commencement trip, which was voted on several months ago by the students among three itinerary options in Europe. Faculty members Michelle Damian, Kristin Larson and Joan Wertz were also part of the contingent, as was staff member Anne Giffey and bookstore staff members Peggy McNitt and Simone Cook. Prior to departure, the students had taken Nielsen’s spring semester class “Psychology of the Holocaust.”

In addition to the opportunity to study the psychological effects of authority, aggression and obedience, the students were also drawn by the ability to visit three countries – Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. The cities they saw included Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Prague.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps were among the many Holocaust sites the group visited during its 11 days in Europe.

“You see stuff that’s probably going to stay with you the rest of your life,” said Nielsen. “I saw more red eyes and tears falling down the faces of my students when we went into a room in which there was just a whole mound of hair – human hair – that had been shaved off of those that had been sent to the concentration camp. ... There was no way that you could deny what you were seeing and not recognize the gravity that a million people died during the Holocaust. ... That really gripped a lot of the students.”

One of those students was Brittany Bender ’19, a psychology and art major from Poplar Grove, Ill.

“With the trip and the class, I got a deeper and more personal understanding about just how horrific the Holocaust was,” said Bender. “Hearing the facts and standing where the victims stood provide two completely different experiences and feelings.”

“Auschwitz and Birkenau were humbling, unforgettable experiences and there are no words to describe it,” said senior Mary Griffith of Monmouth. “There is so much the world needs to take away from the Holocaust. It’s high time to stop being bystanders. A goal of many places we visited was to remind the world to never let this happen again.”

Kate Saulcy ’19 of Bloomington, Ill., made an observation as the group left the infamous camps.

“I learned how differently German citizens view the Holocaust, something that most definitely still affects many of them today,” she said. “I specifically remember our tour guide saying to us, ‘I could never say I’m proud to be a German, because of this. How could I?’”

Within the field of psychology, Nielsen said the atrocity of the acts helped drive home the need for research ethics – “what you can and cannot do with a research participant.”

In addition to the students gaining more profound insight about the Holocaust, Nielsen was also pleased to see “how the liberal arts experience at Monmouth prepares students to travel abroad, to think about their experiences across multiple disciplines.”

Using Bender as an example, Nielsen shared how the student was able to understand the architecture of a memorial and its intended effect.

“She brought in her art background and was able to weave that into some of the thinking that went into the building of this memorial – to recognize how you SHOULD be feeling off. You SHOULD be feeling a little unnerved,” said Nielsen. “She was able to get some great insights that a lot of the people on the trip really appreciated, and I thought it was a perfect representation of what a liberal arts education can give you.”

Bender said she also felt hope.

“When we left Birkenau, there was a group of children who were wearing flags with the Star of David, and the boys were wearing yamakas,” she said. “They were also exiting the camp and were singing and dancing. It really made me think about how far we have come from this horrific period of time, and about there being a time after when people can heal.”