She wrote her dissertation on the understanding and interpretation of the Ten Commandments in rural areas. Once again, her field research took her to Poland’s village communities. After earning her doctorate, Rajtar took on a postdoc position at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, in the German city of Halle. As part of a research project on religion and ethics in eastern Germany, she conducted interviews in the state of Saxony. One interview in particular, with a woman in the city of Chemnitz, stood out in her memory, which turned out to have profound effects on her current research.
Now an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the medical anthropology research area at Freie Universität Berlin, Rajtar, 36, is working on a topic that is little researched in the social sciences, but is also a sensitive one: the religiously motivated refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept blood transfusions. She arrived at this topic based on the interview with the woman in Chemnitz, who, back in the days of the former East Germany, had insisted on having surgery without a blood transfusion.
This is still a tough subject today, since – like circumcision – it touches on religion, politics, law, and culture. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood,” says the Bible (Leviticus 17:11). Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret this biblical passage and others like it as a prohibition by God on accepting blood donations – a stance that can endanger a patient’s life and pose a dilemma for doctors. There are currently more than 160,000 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. They do not leave home without taking an advance health care directive with them.
Since 2010, Rajtar – now an assistant professor at the university – has been back in her hometown of Gdansk, where she teaches first-semester undergraduate courses at the newly founded Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology. The students are highly engaged, she says. Rajtar took leave from the University of Gdansk for her current research stay at Freie Universität, which will last until the end of the summer semester.