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Bethel College students connect with people, places of Eastern Europe

September 11th, 2017

By Rachel Voth

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In only 22 days on a history tour of Eastern Europe in January, Bethel College students learned about events from more than 1,000 years of history—from the beginnings of the Teutonic Knights at the end of the third Crusade to the Kosovo crisis in the 1990s. The nine students toured with Bethel history professor Mark Jantzen. He had lived in the area while he served two assignments with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), first in Berlin from 1988-91 and later in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, from 1993-96. The group visited six countries and stayed in seven cities, including Berlin, Germany; Gdansk and Krakow, Poland; Budapest, Hungary; Belgrade, Serbia; Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Dubrovnik, Croatia.

The students in our group came from diverse educational backgrounds and majors: art, elementary education, social work, peace studies, Bible and religion, and history.

This wide range of interests gave all of us the opportunity to explore the diverse culture and history of Eastern Europe from a variety of viewpoints, as the questions and observations made by an art major and a historian when looking at the same medieval cathedral could be quite different.

Class members read historical documents and literary works from each place, including a short story set in Cold War-era Poland as well as a survivor's account of Auschwitz. These reading assignments, combined with the artifacts and stories we were being exposed to during our days touring, helped me to better grasp the reality of the history we were dealing with. Whether revolutionary, triumphant or tragic, it had involved actual people and had happened right where we were standing.

One of the most valuable experiences we had while in Europe was the opportunity to talk to students or other residents of the areas we visited. Talking to students gave us the chance to ask about the daily life of the residents of the cities we visited and also allowed us to discuss the history and current climate of a region with someone who was raised hearing stories of their past. While the focus of our trip was mainly historical, our interactions with people in various parts of Eastern Europe also provided the opportunity to reflect on the current world situation.

A memorable moment came when we asked Polish students what they thought of the United States. One student responded that her ideas of America come mostly from Michael Jackson and George Bush.

We talked to young adults who had lived through the siege of Sarajevo from 1992-95. While the stories that we were told had obvious biases, we recognized that the sharing was therapeutic, and we realized the value in hearing the accounts first-hand.

The consequences of war came into focus for me as I was exposed to evidence of ethnic cleansing and mass deportations in many of the places we visited. Our gut-wrenching walk through the eerie stillness of Auschwitz made all too obvious the ways in which we label each other by rather arbitrary characteristics and how whole groups can be brushed off in an instant. We saw evidence of ethnic cleansing and deportation in the former Yugoslavia, reminding me that the tragedy of genocide has happened many times over the course of humanity.

During his time with MCC, Professor Jantzen had worked with refugees in Belgrade, Serbia. He was able to share his stories about how the war in the former Yugoslavia had ravaged the country. He connected us with groups that he had worked with during his MCC term. Through their assistance, we were given the opportunity to talk with people who had been deeply affected by the war. We heard their stories of being driven from their homes, and we saw the evidence of the inhumanity of this war as we heard from people who would have aligned themselves with each of the three sides.

We were also exposed to signs of hope for the region. Refugees, who work together and with the local relief agency Bread of Life, use their artistic talents to create greeting cards which, when sold, give these people a needed source of income. In Sarajevo, we were deeply moved by a performance of an inter-religious choir, which is supported by MCC. The choir seeks to mend ethnic and religious tensions by singing the sacred music of each of the three main religious groups involved in the hostilities.

Each of us grew in our appreciation for the culture as well as the history of the places we visited, and we were all exposed to evidence of both the best and worst of humanity.

Students on the interterm trip to Eastern Europe were seniors Joshua G. Gingerich, Middlebury, Ind.; and Samuel Schrag, Wichita; juniors Kristen Abrahams, Newton; Michelle Jan Dyck, North Newton; Ian Huebert, Henderson, Neb.; Emily Smith, North Newton; and Eric R. Stucky, Galva; and sophomores Heidi Holliday, Andover; and Rachel Voth, Topeka.

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.