INDIANAPOLIS – A new exhibit being introduced at the Indiana Historical Society next week is recreating a forgotten part of Hoosier history.
The story begins in 1943 when about 3,000 Italian prisoners of war were captured in North Africa and brought to the United States by ship. The prisoners were later transported to Indiana by train and held at Camp Atterbury during World War II.
“For the World War II buffs, this is certainly going to be an aspect of war history and home front history that they probably haven’t learned about or I think the American public doesn’t really know about,” said Angela Wolfgram, IHS exhibition researcher.
The exhibition researchers at IHS first learned about this piece of history through a member of the museum who told them the story of the chapel at Atterbury that is still standing and is now the focus of the exhibit at IHS.
At Atterbury, the POWs were shown “Hoosier Hospitality” with more freedoms than prisoners in other camps. They were allowed to eat food tailored to their diets, learn English and practice their religion.
The Italian POWs were also given permission to build the chapel, which was not the way prisoners like them were normally treated.
“On the deeper level, I think this is a story of hope. I don’t want to paint this as a summer camp experience because they still were prisoners, they didn’t have absolute freedom, they had to stay and go where they were told to but the interactions that they had and the way that some of these fellows kept in touch with some of the men that they met here in Indiana,” said Wolfgram.
“I just feel that there is a hopefulness there and the way that they were treated so kindly and knew that their lives were much better here than their families were experiencing back in Italy.”
Through the exhibit, guests are able to see photos displayed on the wall and interact with actors who are portraying POWs who stayed at Atterbury.
For exhibition actor and interpreter, Jay Hemphill, there is a modern-day lesson that viewers of the exhibit can take away from this story.
“I think this exhibit is going to teach that we’re all just people. When soldiers fight, it doesn’t matter what side they fight for, they’re fighting for a cause they believe in, so it’s all about perspective. It doesn’t matter what you believe or where you come from, you can still treat people with respect and kindness,” said Hemphill.
The exhibit, You Are There: 1943 Italian POWs at Atterbury, in downtown Indianapolis will be open from March 4, 2017 through August 11, 2018.
For more information, call (317) 232-1882 or visit www.indianahistory.org.
Nicole Hernandez is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.