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Journey through Eastern Europe helps bring history to life

April 16th, 2018

by Elizabeth Ratzlaff

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – During this year’s January interterm, three of my peers and I had the privilege of visiting several European countries as part of Bethel College’s “History of East Central Europe” travel course.

The trip included stays in Berlin, Gdansk, Krakow, Budapest and Belgrade.

Mark Jantzen, a professor of history at Bethel, led the trip, of which he is a veteran, having offered this travel opportunity to the Bethel community six times previously. The small size of our group made whole-group discussions easy and group bonding a guarantee.

In each country, we visited historical sites that acted as markers for the long, rich and, as always, complex histories of the various peoples living in the countries we visited. Remnants and monuments from World War II and Communism were often the locations, along with government buildings, cathedrals and places significant to Mennonite history.

In Berlin, we saw remaining evidence of the Berlin Wall, such as pieces of the wall itself, the wall’s indentation running along city streets, and Checkpoint Charlie. Our professor shared his firsthand account of peaceful protests that began in two Berlin churches and can be credited for ending Communism in Germany.

We traveled back further in time as well, visiting the Brandenburg Gate and the museum-housed Ishtar Gate of Babylon. We remembered the sobering reality of World War II and the Holocaust at several memorials and the Nazi headquarters for the Gestapo and S.S. officers.

The trip also introduced us to modern cultures different from our own.

In Berlin, we experienced the magic of German bakeries, and a couple of my peers were able to try out their developing German, thanks to Bethel’s German classes and Professor Merle Schlabaugh.

We were also able to reconnect with Lennart Storch, a student at the University of Wuppertal who spent the previous school year at Bethel through the Wuppertal-Bethel exchange program.

Following our time in Berlin, we traveled to Großbeeren, a town just outside Berlin where a friend of Professor Jantzen’s lives and serves as a pastor for the local congregation.

We stayed in the home of a generous and kind couple and were shown all around the town, meeting many invested community members, a high school youth group and the congregation’s group for retired women. I’m grateful for the conversations we had and perspectives we gained from our time in this community.

In Gdansk, our learning was enhanced by time spent with Polish students our age as they showed us around the city. It was difficult to believe that most of the buildings lining the streets of Old Town were not original but rather replicas built after the destruction caused by World War II.

We were transported to the era of the Teutonic knights with a visit to Malbork Castle. We didn’t both closing our gaping mouths until we’d visited Wawel Castle and Cathedral in Krakow as well.

During our time in Krakow, we also took a day to make a difficult yet important visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau.

We were welcomed to Budapest with snow and spent three days exploring the city, with visits to St. Stephen’s Basilica – memorable not only for its beauty but also for holding St. Stephen’s very own mummified hand – the Parliament Building, Castle Hill, Matthias Church and a delightful bakery, a favorite of all, “The Fat Fairy.”

We exchanged money for the fourth and final time in Serbia after arriving in Belgrade on our third night train. Here, we were able to again engage with many local people thanks to Professor Jantzen’s connections from his time living in Belgrade and working for the organization Bread of Life.

It didn’t take long to find evidence of the 1999 NATO bombing of the city, and I was humbled and grateful for the kindness and generosity extended by those we met in light of the possibly painful associations with our American identity.

We were immediately swept into the flexible flow of Serbian culture with a day hosted by members and volunteers of Bread of Life. We had the opportunity to meet and talk, through translation, with a group of young Roma students, learning about their culture and current experiences with regard to their long history of marginalization.

The following day, a 2007 Bethel graduate and Belgrade native, ?or?e Mari?i?, took our group to various locations outside the city and showed us what it really means to be stuffed to the brim with delicious Serbian food.

Although I was able to capture memories of this trip in photos and journal entries, I’m certain it will be the kindness extended and the conversations with the people we met that I will remember most down the line.

This trip brought history to life for me through places and people, and it has been yet another precious piece of my experience at Bethel College.

Elizabeth Ratzlaff is a junior from Moundridge. Her fellow travelers for the Bethel College 2018 interterm class History of East Central Europe, led by Mark Jantzen, professor of history, were Aaron Long, sophomore from Wichita, Storm Myer, senior from Miltonvale, and Clint Unruh, senior from Newton.

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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.