Community Engagement

Community Comes Together

Wide support for groundbreaking program in Biomedical Ethics

A man standing in front of a Holocaust exhibit

OUWB associate professor Jason Wasserman, Ph.D., stands in front of an exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus exhibit “Deadly Medicine.” (Photo Credit: Robert Hall)

A man looking at a train car at a Holocaust ecxhibit.

OUWB associate professor Jason Wasserman, Ph.D., looks at a train car exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus exhibit “Deadly Medicine.” (Photo Credit: Robert Hall)

A man looking at a Holocaust exhibit

OUWB associate professor Jason Wasserman, Ph.D., reads through the history of Holocaust medical and research abuses at the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus exhibit “Deadly Medicine.” (Photo Credit: Robert Hall)

Community Engagement

icon of a calendarSeptember 10, 2021

icon of a pencilBy Jill Verdier

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It is a lesser-known story of the Holocaust, but essential for humanity to remember. During World War II, a large number of health care professionals abandoned moral principles of healing in the name of corrupt Nazi ideology.

From involuntary sterilization and brutal research experimentation to medicalized genocide, egregious ethical violations by the medical and scientific establishment occurred. Grappling with this dark history can help today’s physicians-in-training equip themselves for a future that will require them to face contemporary ethical dilemmas in both clinical and research environments. These fundamental lessons of preserving human dignity are the center of a new biomedical ethics program at Oakland University.

The Holocaust and Medicine Education for Health Professionals: Study Excursion to Auschwitz program is launching summer 2022 at the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine (OUWB). A community of donors has come together to fund this new initiative.

It is an innovative program that aligns with OUWB’s pioneering commitment to educating health professionals who value engagement, connection and compassion for others. Currently, the school offers more contact hours in medical ethics and humanities than any other medical program in the country.

The Holocaust and Medicine Education program augments this commitment to humanism in medicine. The program trains OUWB’s future physicians to develop a professional identity and moral compass firmly rooted in the caring and ethical treatment of patients.

OUWB HOLOCAUST AND MEDICINE EDUCATION FOR HEALTH PROFESSIONALS: STUDY EXCURSION TO AUSCHWITZ

The OUWB Holocaust and Medicine excursion to Auschwitz is only the second program of its kind in the country. It includes a summer class for first-year medical (M1) students, who experience an intensive overseas journey of medical reflection and self-discovery.

The program is inspired by the leadership of Hedy Wald, Ph.D. Dr. Wald is a clinical professor of family medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University and a key advocate for incorporating Holocaust history into medical education.

The program starts with preparatory sessions to provide a general history background with small group reflection. Then, the group sets out on a nine-day trip to Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, for guided tours and interactive workshops, and a post-excursion community educational symposium. Second-year medical students (M2) who participated in the trip develop programming for their classmates to share the experience and their reflections with the OUWB community. This allows every OUWB student with an opportunity to hear the lessons learned by the travel participants and place these insights into their own understanding of issues raised by the Holocaust.

Since it was founded in 2008, OUWB has stood apart from other medical schools for its unique learning environment and “kindness curriculum,” which prioritizes training physicians to demonstrate both technical expertise and kindness.

The Holocaust and Medicine Education program expands the school’s longstanding commitment to humanism and builds on lessons that already exist in the school’s curriculum. A centerpiece in this curriculum includes a seven-week seminar, developed
by Rabbi Herb Yoskowitz, which helps students examine Nazi medical practices and better understand the heroic work of Jewish physicians in the ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust.

ETHICS IN TODAY’S WORLD

The Holocaust and Medicine Education program will enable medical students to confront the tragic history of the Holocaust. This experience comes at a pivotal time when knowledge about the Holocaust is atrophying. In addition, the medical community, at large, is experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue that threatens to dull its most basic humanistic impulses.

According to Jason Wasserman, Ph.D., an OUWB faculty member and one of the visionaries behind the Holocaust and Medicine Education program, it is important to acknowledge that the Holocaust emerged from a set of conditions and impulses that are still present in our society.

"It is dangerous to think that a tragedy like the Holocaust can’t happen again. Or that it won’t happen here,” Dr. Wasserman says.

As survivors of the Holocaust have aged and passed away, knowledge around these events appear to be declining. According to a 2020 Holocaust knowledge and awareness study commissioned by the Claims Conference, one in ten people under the age of 40 have never heard of the Holocaust. More than half did not know basic facts about the history of the Holocaust.

“The notion that it can’t happen again becomes all the more worrisome when people can’t even tell what ‘it’ was in the first place,” says Wasserman.

The complicity of physicians during the Holocaust and the role of the German medical and scientific establishment in carrying out the ideology, design and execution of crimes during the Holocaust is too often forgotten. Programs like OUWB’s Holocaust and Medicine Education counteract the declining Holocaust understanding, elevate the importance of humanism in medicine, and prepare today’s physicians with the historical knowledge needed to make right decisions today.

IMPACTING A COMMUNITY

The Holocaust and Medicine Education program’s profound impact will be felt not only by the select group of students who attend the excursion itself, but also countless other students, community members and patients who benefit from knowledge gained through the program.

Students who participate in the program will experience a life-changing opportunity and will use this knowledge to form professional identities based on ethical values that will guide their careers and impact interactions with future patients. These students will also share this knowledge to reinforce both the relevance of this history and the important role of ethics as the foundation of our civilization.

Collaborative programming with Oakland University’s Cis Maisel Center for Judaic Studies and Community Engagement will also extend the reach of this program. Students will have an opportunity to share their experiences with community members during lectures and special events designed specifically around this purpose.

POWER OF A SHARED VISION

The Holocaust and Medicine Education program is being funded, in part, through the generosity of donors. Gifts to the program are helping to build a $1 million endowment, which will enable 20 students to participate in the program every year. Funding will provide $3,000 per student to cover the travel, lodging and meal expenses associated with the nine-day excursion.

Oakland University President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, M.D., was one of the first people to provide financial support for this program. She personally created an endowment in biomedical ethics to help launch the program. This endowment was a special gift to her father and honored the memory of her mother, Bella Rozencweig Hirsch, who was born in Poland and was directly impacted by the tragedies that occurred in Auschwitz.

The Karp Family Foundation has also made a pledge in support of the program. The gift, honoring Gabriella Karp and Alexander Karp (of blessed memory), demonstrates the Karp family’s commitment to improving and advancing medicine. “We are proud to help strengthen Holocaust education at OUWB. Because our parents were both Holocaust survivors, we have made it a priority to help preserve the history and lessons of what tragically happened in order to ensure a better future,” explained Gary and David Karp. “This program perfectly fits our mission because it will use those lessons to bolster the understanding of our physicians and their ability to provide excellent care to countless patients in the
years ahead.”

A BETTER FUTURE FOR MEDICINE

Biomedical ethics education is critical to the future of our society. Oakland University is proud to be a leader in this area by including the history of medicine in the Holocaust. Thanks to the many OUWB donors who established endowments for the program, OUWB is the first medical school in the country to have an annual study trip to Auschwitz — equipping our community’s health professionals with a moral compass for navigating the future
of medicine.

View a video of this special exhibit.

Join us in making this opportunity available to students in the years ahead. Learn more by contacting Claus Weimann, director of philanthropy at the OUWB School of Medicine, at (248) 370-3647 or cweimann@oakland.edu.

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