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You Are There 1943: Italian POWs at Atterbury

In one of our most moving You Are There exhibits to date, talk to Italian prisoners of war in the chapel they built at Camp Atterbury – their home away from home.

In 1943, approximately 3,000 Italian POWs were held at Atterbury during World War II. That it held prisoners of war is surprising to many, but the legacy of this time period lives on as part of the camp's history and through the descendants of prisoners who still gather in Indianapolis.

"This story surprised me," say Angela Wolfgram, exhibits researcher. "Kindness is a big part of it. Interactions were friendly, unlike what we picture for a POW camp. Also, I was struck by how much the Italians appreciated their time at Atterbury. It wasn’t summer camp, but they enjoyed the food, the interactions with Central Indiana residents, recreation time and even religious freedom. I think this is a hopeful story, and we need hopeful stories."

You'll step into a recreation of the still-existing "Chapel in the Meadow" as POWs are completing the paintings on the walls and marbleizing the altar. They can tell you about the symbolism of the art, World War II and their living conditions. In addition to the prisoners, you may come across American soldiers, including Chaplain Maurice Imhoff and Lt. Col. John Gammell, commanding officer of the internment camp.

After your experience, visit the adjoining room to discover the history of Camp Atterbury through photos, learn about its role today, and uncover the meaning of Italian iconography and religious art for those abroad.

ABOUT THE ARTWORK

Many of the Italians possessed some artistic talents and designed and created the chapel themselves out of materials found around the camp. To recreate this scenario, we worked with artist and portrait painter Karen Graeser.

Karen, who lives in Indianapolis, is a natural-born Hoosier and a Purdue graduate with four kids and a husband of 37 years. She has been painting for 30 years, primarily as a representational artist. "My favorite thing is figures," she says. "In the last few years, I've become more interested in painting historic images – Native Americans, early pioneers and settlers." She was happy to take on this project because it was in sync with that desire.

"I appreciate the real heart behind it, which is honoring and valuing the face of the POWs in WWII," Karen says. "I thought it was an important and noteworthy theme especially in this divisive political climate, and I like the idea of returning to an earlier time when we had more faith. Focusing on this and seeing that the POWs were treated so well, it is encouraging and heartening."

As someone who's taught portrait painting and figure drawing, Karen was challenged by recreating the chapel's art created by the Italian POWs. "I'm used to slightly improving what I see," she say. "The cherubs, for example, are primitive – almost like folk art. My natural instinct is to improve them, but the point isn't trying to make them look better. I just let go and did it as I saw it because the spirit of these paintings is to honor these good guys caught up in a war they were conscripted into, who had their faith to console them. It's not about the artwork and the quality of it; it's about honoring what they did."

You Are There 1943: Italian POWs at Atterbury will run from March 4, 2017 through Aug. 11, 2018.

Presented by Jane Fortune and Franciscan Health