‘The journey to Poland is laden with meaning, yet has scarcely been studied’

There is very little published research that analyses the psychological impact of trips to Poland or Prague on Jewish teens.

Only a few studies have been conducted on the emotional impact on teens of visits to Auschwitz and other Holocaust memorial sites in Poland.

The most relevant to Australian-Jewish high-schoolers is a 2013 pilot study of Israeli teens’ trips to Poland, co-authored by a Sydney psychiatrist. A more recent, larger study of non-Jewish, Polish high school students also makes some pertinent findings in relation to the psychological consequences of visiting Auschwitz.

The 2013 study by Professor Garry Walter, a psychiatrist affiliated with The University of Sydney, together with three Israeli colleagues, looked at the mental health impact of Israeli teens’ “Holocaust memorial journeys”. Walter and his co-authors didn’t assess teens directly, they surveyed 50 child and adolescent psychiatrists and residents in Israel.

One of the study’s central findings was that the trip to Poland – which at the time was not compulsory for Israeli high-schoolers – appeared to trigger a variety of mental health problems, including psychosis, but only one case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The study had no data about how long those mental health issues lasted, but the authors recommended that “high risk” teens be evaluated before the trip (although they didn’t say what makes a teen “high risk”).

In comments to the media after the study was published, Walter said those findings shouldn’t be interpreted in an alarming way. “With appropriate support before, during and after, the trip [to Poland] can be a most rewarding experience,” he said. Indeed, the study’s authors emphasised that the support received by all adolescents before, during, and after visiting Poland would be likely to influence the trip’s psychological impact.

This need to psychologically prepare teens for trips to places linked to past traumatic events is echoed in a 2018 study of more than 680 non-Jewish, Polish high school visitors to Auschwitz.

That study, authored by two Polish professors of psychology, found “secondary traumatic stress syndrome” – that is, negative behaviours and emotions by someone exposed to a traumatic event but who doesn’t experience it directly – in 13% of those non-Jewish high school visitors to the Auschwitz memorial museum.

Poland visit (MOTL website)

The authors wrote that “indirect contact with the suffering of other people by looking at their piles of hair, shoes and pictures of emaciated bodies and corpses could lead to severe psychological problems,” especially for people who strongly empathise with the victimised group.

“Psychiatrists working with Holocaust Memorial Museum staff had mentioned this problem,” they added, but it had never been formally analysed.

The authors suggest that visits to Auschwitz be preceded by a more comprehensive account of Holocaust history, which could reduce the negative psychological effects on the most empathetic visitors.

These pieces of research from 2013 and 2018 raise further questions. In particular, are more sensitive Jewish teens – like the more empathetic Polish students – more vulnerable to emotional struggles after visiting a Holocaust memorial site, even if they’ve been well-prepared and supported?

What is the impact of trips to Auschwitz and other Holocaust memorial sites on Jewish teens from the diaspora, as opposed to Israeli teens? And what are the differences, if any, on teen visitors from survivor families, compared to those whose families didn’t experience the Holocaust?

These questions address the growing recognition that indirect exposure to traumatic events can trigger mental health issues, even if a person was not present at the time of the original trauma.

More than 10 years ago, Walter and his Israeli colleagues wrote that “the memorial journey to Poland is laden with purpose and profound meaning for Jewish people. It also constitutes an emotional stressor, yet this experience, shared by a large number of Israel adolescents, as well as by adolescents from a large number of other countries, has scarcely been studied.”

These words still hold true: there is still no published research which directly analyses the psychological impact of trips to Poland or Prague, to visit Theresienstadt, on Jewish teens, Israeli or otherwise.

Photo: Courtesy of MOTL