History students help rebuild Holocaust Museum from the inside out

December 6 2005

John Laska of Terre Haute helped liberate Dora-Mittlebau concentration camp in Germany during World War II, as a member of the U.S. Army's 104th Infantry Division, nicknamed "The Timberwolves."

Laska's moving story of entering the camp after the German soldiers retreated, and finding hundreds of emaciated and ill prisoners left behind, and thousands of human remains, might have been lost forever, if not for a college history professor and her students.

MEMORIES RECORDED AND PRESERVED

Laska and other World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors from the Wabash Valley were interviewed by students in assistant professor of history Anne Foster's History 300 class this semester.

The videotaped interviews which resulted will be donated to the Candles Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, to help restore some of the historical content which was destroyed.

Foster says she drove past the burned down Candles Holocaust Museum, a victim of arson, every morning on her way to work in Terre Haute. For a year, Professor Foster thought about a way that the ISU history department could help the museum rebuild - not by replacing the bricks on the outside, but by recreating what was lost on the inside.

"What I thought would be the best thing," Foster said, "was to begin to capture the stories in a permanent way that I know are told inside that museum everyday."

Foster says her History 300 class, where students learn different methods of researching and documenting history, was a perfect match for an oral history project.

"We wanted to bring this project like a real historian would do a project," Foster said, "and the way to do that is to do something local so that they can really get involved in primary research, into documents, into interviews and that kind of thing. It's an effort to bring history really alive for them."

Students were paired up with Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans from the Wabash Valley who volunteer at the Candles Museum, telling their stories.

Juanita Carothers, an ISU sophomore political science major and history minor from Indianapolis, said she was awed by Laska's retelling of the stench and horrors of the Dora-Mittlebau camp, an account which she and her team captured on videotape.

"It almost felt unreal," Carothers said, "because I was actually listening to someone who actually had been there and seen it instead of just reading about it. It was kind of like in awe, like in amazement, you know, to actually see somebody and then to see the pain as he was telling about it."

Carothers' teammate, Matthew Goller of Indianapolis, interviewed Laska and recorded this statement of Laska's for the team's completed oral history project: "You look through the fence... and as far as you could see, there were mounds of bodies, just piled up, like you were raking leaves."

WASHINGTON TRIP TO RESEARCH AT NATIONAL ARCHIVES

With the help of a Focus Indiana grant from The Lilly Endowment, Carothers and eight other students traveled with Professor Foster to Washington, D.C., to conduct further research on their subjects at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and The National Archives. Carothers found researching at this level to be much different than at the local library.

"It's harder than most people may think to actually find the research, request the documents, get the documents," Carothers said, "'cause you would have like large trays and bookshelves of documents that you would have to go through, but it was a very valuable experience, so, I'm glad I had it."

The next step, Foster says, is to create an exhibit at the Candles Museum, utilizing the students' projects, so these personal histories are preserved and made available to the general public.

"And now we are gonna have those stories on tape," Foster said, "not only for people to see when those people might not be in the room, but then forever."

CONTACT: Anne Foster, assistant professor of history, Indiana State University, (812) 237-8432 or hifoster@isugw.indstate.edu

WRITER: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790 or kspanuello@isugw.indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

John Laska of Terre Haute helped liberate Dora-Mittlebau concentration camp in Germany during World War II, as a member of the U.S. Army's 104th Infantry Division, nicknamed "The Timberwolves."

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