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History becomes real with sights, sounds and tastes of east-central Europe

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Incredible history, fascinating cultures and overwhelming hospitality were all part of the Bethel College interterm class that traveled to eastern Europe.

The trip included visits to Berlin, Gdańsk, Kraków, Budapest and Belgrade.

The sites we visited included the Berlin Wall, the former Danzig Mennonite Church building, the Auschwitz concentration camp, Castle Hill in Budapest and buildings in Serbia that had been destroyed by the 1999 NATO bombings.

Lots of delicious breads were indulged in and non-verbal communication used. Passports were lost, appearances were made in foreign news programs and an appreciation for the history of these places was further enhanced.

The class was small – six total, including Professor of History Mark Jantzen – which made us a fairly mobile group who always stuck together.

We had learned a lot of this history – now seeing it and being right where it happened made it all much more real.

On top of visiting historical sites, we were fortunate to get to talk to people who lived through the recent history of each of these places.

We spent a day touring around Gdańsk with a group of American studies students, including a visit to an old building, originally a Mennonite church where my ancestors probably worshipped.

It was interesting to speak with the Polish students, who were obviously not content with Poland’s current state of affairs, even though it was just over 20 years ago that Poland made a history by adopting democracy.

We also spent an evening with the youth group of a church we visited in the town of Großeeren, just south of Berlin. We got to ask them about the many cultural differences between the United States and Germany.

The educational system and healthcare were a couple of the topics I had the chance to discuss with them before we began group games in German.

While we were in Belgrade, we visited with some seniors from the local community. Serbia has gone through a lot of changes in the past century. To illustrate the complexity of Serbia’s history, one of the older gentlemen told us he has been a resident of Belgrade all his life and has lived in seven different countries during that time.

On our second day in Serbia, we got to visit some rural areas with Bethel alumni Alyssa Schrag and Djordje Maricic, and eat an incredible amount of freshly baked and cooked Serbian food from a local farmer. The food was so good and I ate so much that I think I was still full from breakfast when I went to sleep that night.

Even though one member of our group had to visit the U.S. embassy in Budapest after losing his passport on one of the three night trains we rode on, we all made it back to the United States after our 11-hour overseas flight, feeling lucky to have taken part in this incredible experience.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2014-15. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

Jesse Voth-Gaeddert is a senior from Hesston. Other members of the 2015 Bethel interterm class History of East-Central Europe with Mark Jantzen, professor of history, were Brandon Anderson, De Ridder, Louisiana, Spencer Bailly, Wichita, Andrew Ewy, Parlier, California, and Ethan Rodenberg, Halstead.

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