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World War II trip connects history, literature, current events

Campus Life Jul 10, 2023
A group of people hold an IU flag in front of the Brandenburg Gates
A group of people hold an IU flag in front of the Brandenburg Gates

KOKOMO, Ind. — It’s one thing to read stories about what happened in World War II.

It’s another to walk in the footsteps of those who lived it.

About a dozen Indiana University Kokomo students experienced that history this summer, with a 14-day Kokomo Experience and You (KEY) trip to sites significant to World War II. It included touring the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, where Nazi officials planned the “final solution” to deport and murder the European Jews, and the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany; the Anne Frank House and Dutch Resistance Museum in the Netherlands; the beach at Normandy where the Allied invasion took place; the German Occupation Museum at Guernsey; and Churchill’s war rooms and Bletchley Park in England.

Students prepared for travel during the spring semester with On the Front Lines: World War II in Literature and Film, a class taught by Michelle Westervelt, teaching professor in English; and Sarah Heath, associate professor of history.

“You could connect with it more,” said Lilly Johnson, one of the students who participated. “We’d read the pages and heard the stories, and then we saw where it took place. We saw where people walked and had their everyday lives. You’re really putting history under your feet; you’re walking through it.”

She was especially moved by their visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

“We’ve heard so much about it, and seeing her actual diary was so unreal,” she said. “I’d read about it since elementary school, and it was just amazing to see where she was hidden all those years.”

Being where the history happened is one of the powerful things about this trip, Heath said.

“You can put yourself in the shoes of the people who lived there at that time,” she said. “That’s how the course was designed, thinking about the experiences of average people. You stand in the exact location where Anne Frank and her family and another family hid and had to be silent. Could you walk across that room without the floor creaking? You can’t. In the Churchill war rooms, you imagine being there and know you would probably feel or hear the bombs going off outside.”

Westervelt said the trip personalized the war they had read about in class. In Guernsey, they met author Molly Bihet, who has written extensively about her childhood during the occupation of the Channel Islands.

“It put a human face on the war,” she said. “They could ask questions and hear real stories. Seeing and hearing from someone who lived through that makes it impossible to ignore that it happened.”

She felt an intense sense of patriotism in Normandy, seeing the Allied flags, including the U.S. flag, and hearing the appreciation for the Allied and American forces and their role in freeing France from German rule.

Student Katy Johnson said it’s especially important to hear the stories of those who lived through World War II.

“As time goes on, the people who lived then and fought in the war, and the Holocaust survivors aren’t going to be around much longer,” she said. “It’s important to keep the knowledge alive and learn from what happened then. You can connect with it more, and you can’t deny what’s in front of you.”

Funding for the trip came from the Women of the Well House giving circle, the Jack Ryan International Travel Scholarship, the international travel scholarship committee, and the KEY Fund. Students also received individual scholarships from the international travel scholarship committee.

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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