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Visiting Eastern and Central Europe makes history real

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Physicality adds a kind of presence to history, makes it feel real. Once you’ve touched a fragment of the Berlin Wall, a chain-link fence at Auschwitz or a bombed-out building in Belgrade, you better recognize the impact of what might otherwise seem like distant stories.

Our Bethel Interterm trip, for the class History of East/Central Europe, consisted of intense presence-making for three excellent weeks.

As mentioned, we visited fragments of the Wall in the heart of Berlin, a city of people who seem largely content to build over their troubled history. Professor and Fearless Leader Mark Jantzen walked us to the Gethsemane church in former East Berlin, the site of powerful and peaceful anti-regime protests in the late 1980s. He was present when East Berlin police blocked off the crowded streets around the church, expecting violence. We also visited museums and landmarks, conquered the S-Bahn and stuffed ourselves with Döner Kebabs.

We spent six days in Poland, first in Gdansk, then in Krakow. In Gdansk, we compared the modern-day Old Town to photographs of the district shortly after World War II. Suffice to say, almost all the structures today were built after the war.

While in Poland, we also toured the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration and death camps. The remains of the camps were haunting, to say the least. We walked the same paths taken by thousands upon countless thousands of prisoners not 80 years prior. We saw what those prisoners left behind – photographs, suitcases, toothbrushes. The experience was exhausting but important.

On a more pleasant note, we visited the city of Budapest for two days, reveling in the Gothic architecture, the Parliament building and the famous Chain Bridge. In the national museum, we witnessed a telling of history from the Hungarian perspective. The information raised interesting questions about how nationalism might affect historical narratives – a question relevant to our nation’s history as well. And of course we ate traditional Hungarian food – sweet and salty pancakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Finally, we visited two cities in the Balkans: Belgrade, Serbia, and Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. We toured a media studio that NATO bombed in the ’90s. The pitted-out rooms remain as monuments to the dead. We listened as Serbs shared about American involvement in the region and saw the work of a local NGO (non-governmental organization), Bread of Life, as it educated Roma children. We saw firsthand the effects of American bombs – the experience brought tremendous weight to political rhetoric, past and present, about war.

In Bosnia, we visited a country split in half, with Serbs on one side and Muslims and Croats on the other. We walked down recently shelled streets and met students who were alive for the Balkan Wars.

All in all, our trip to central Europe helped forge connections between past and present. It brought history to life in vivid color and allowed us, Bethel students living in the Midwest, to re-evaluate our positions in the world. It turned stories about Soviet satellites, Solidarity movements and Stasi prisons into real, visceral experiences.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

Matt Stucky is a senior from Moundridge. Other members of the class History of East Central Europe, taught by Mark Jantzen, associate professor of history, were: Megan Fowler, La Junta, Colo.; Whitney Hiebner, Hampton, Neb.; Aaron Howard, Halstead; Emily Kliewer, Lenexa; Christian Loeffler, North Newton; Marcus Maust, Bay Port, Mich.; David Mueller, Halstead; Jesse Mueller, Halstead; Caleb Regehr, Whitewater; Ricardo Sanchez, Moundridge; Ren Scherling, Goodland; Alyssa Schrag, Moundridge; Alex Stucky, Moundridge; and Dorothy Voth, Hesston.

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