UT Dallas Researcher Honored for Work in Poland
Recent Neurolinguistic Studies Focus on Concentration Camp Survivors
Nov. 22, 2010
Dr. Hanna Ulatowska grew up in a pre- and post-war Europe of danger and uncertainty, so she embraces any opportunity to reach out to “wounded storytellers” and help them communicate their life experiences.
The University of Texas at Dallas professor now focuses her research on interviewing survivors of Nazi concentration camps and World War II veterans. Her lifetime of work in neurolinguistics recently earned Ulatowska special recognition from the Polish Neuropsychological Society, which awarded her this year’s prestigious Copernicus Prize.
When she was 11, Ulatowska was imprisoned in the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, until she and surviving family members managed a rare escape. They were hidden by a compassionate local family until the camp was liberated by the Russian Army.
She went on to endure many more years of hardship in Soviet-controlled Poland, before earning her PhD and coming to the United States five decades ago.
By that time, Ulatowska had begun her groundbreaking research on discourse in people suffering symptoms of aphasia, dementia and advanced aging. She came to UT Dallas and the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences’ Callier Center for Communication Disorders in 1973.
Communication Processes Studied
Ulatowska’s interdisciplinary approach to research examines the relationship among social, linguistic and cognitive information inherent in the process of communicating. She has studied aphasia – the inability to express and understand language – among stroke victims, Alzheimer’s patients and aging Americans from various ethnic backgrounds.
While she doesn’t like to highlight her own history, Ulatowska’s early experiences have helped her develop the relationships necessary to further her research in Poland. She now spends summers in her native country, interviewing survivors of the concentration camps and analyzing the linguistic and psychological effects of their experiences.
Ulatowska said she began interviewing the former prisoners and veterans as an extension of her examination of elderly patients. Even when afflicted with dementia or a stroke, the most vivid long-term memories are sometimes recalled, she said. Many of the people who survived traumatic episodes early in their lives avoided telling their stories for many years.
“But there is no doubt that in old age, they are more willing to review and discuss their lives,” Ulatowska said.
As a neurolinguist, she is well equipped to interpret their words and other forms of expression. “I let them express their thoughts and memories any way they want, through painting or writing or however they want to communicate,” she said.
Ulatowska finds her research over the past decade challenging for many reasons.
“The most difficult part has been facing people who, as they recalled an unusually traumatic experience, seemed unable to reconcile the experience with reality,” she said. “The culture of Polish men of that generation is not compatible with showing deep emotion, and many found it difficult to relate their stories as they relived the emotional experiences.”
Experiences Haunt Survivors
Ulatowska has discovered that individuals who experienced the camps and other horrors of war as children seemed to have suffered more long-term effects than the adult generation. They were not prepared for such emotional traumas, and did not truly understand death before experiencing it close at hand.
But Ulatowska said she has been inspired by individuals’ willingness to “make peace” and not harbor hatred toward their European neighbors. She, in fact, counts two Germans among her closest friends.
“I have had a very fulfilling career in the United States, and I am glad that I’ve been able to return to Poland and conduct research that helps us understand how people deal with traumatic events and how it affects their ability to communicate,” she said.
Going forward, Ulatowska would like to work more with American World War II veterans, helping them to communicate better at the end of their lives. She is also rallying students to follow her into the field, encouraging them to talk to their own grandfathers about experiences during the war.
“Many of these ‘wounded storytellers’ have amazing stories that they’ve never been able to tell,” Ulatowska said. “I want to do whatever I can to enable them to share with us.”