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When History Isn't What You Expect

Not so long ago, in a place that’s not so far away, 3,000 Italians found themselves in a prisoner of war camp at Camp Atterbury. In 1943, Italian soldiers captured in North Africa got sent to various POW camps across the United States. A large group of them arrived in Indiana beginning April 30. These POWs lived in a compound next to Camp Atterbury, a military installation that’s about 30 minutes south of Indianapolis.

For our most recent exhibit, You Are There 1943: Italian POWs at Atterbury, we had to decide how we wanted to convey the complex WWII story of Italian POWs and their American guards at Camp Atterbury through a recreation of the chapel built by the POWs themselves. I learned very early on in my research that this story was not what I expected. Let me explain.

Research for this exhibit completely challenged my preconceived notions of what it meant to live and work in a POW camp. When I hear the term “POW camp,” I expect for the subsequent story to be heartbreaking, and maybe even demoralizing. There are many tragic examples of POW camps during the WWII era, which is why I assumed the story of Camp Atterbury’s POWs would be the same. To my surprise, it was quite the opposite. Everything I read kept pointing back to a friendly rapport between Italian POWs and American guards. POW Camp commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Gammell, allowed the POWs to build a chapel, form an orchestra, pursue hobbies and even change rations so they could eat the starch-based diet they preferred. This man was not a bitter, power-hungry commander. He was merciful and kind. As for the Italians, letters I’ve seen and interviews I’ve heard indicate that they actually enjoyed their time there. They were off of the battlefield, far from war, being fed well, and taken care of by people who seemed to treat them with compassion.  

The story of POWs at Camp Atterbury is full of paradoxes, and there’s a lot to unpack. You see, these POWs weren’t free. They were still imprisoned, but did enjoy a level of freedom that one wouldn’t expect. How do you find a balance in this “not a summer camp but not a Nazi death camp” scenario? The IHS actors portraying POWs in the chapel space walk a fine line between expressing the relief that the Italians felt for being out of battle and being treated well, and not overlooking the fact that these men missed their families and worried about conditions in Italy. The actors playing American guards have to figure out how to measure up to the notions that come with guarding “the enemy” with the fact that these were men just like them – soldiers living far from home and stuck in the middle of a war they themselves didn’t instigate. Sometimes the conversations between the actors in the space are incredibly silly and playful. Other times, the heartbreak is palpable. That’s what makes this such a compelling story.

The account of Italian POWs at Camp Atterbury surprised me, enthralled me and encouraged me. Come visit You Are There 1943: Italian POWs at Atterbury so you, too, can experience the unexpected magic of this story.

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