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Letters from orphans in post-World War I Germany told through visual art

"We're giving voices to ghosts"



If you were a hungry child, how would you express your gratitude to those who fed you?

The children of an orphanage in Köpenick, Germany expressed it by mailing thank-you letters to donors in the United States. These thank-you letters and other archival materials often contained artwork, stories and poems. Between World War I and World War II, the American Friends Service Committee fed hundreds of thousands of children in Germany and Austria.

A collection of such letters, along with archival material like telegrams, is on display at Marian University Art Gallery through October 7.

Some drawings depict children being fed. One shows a boy holding his belly near a pot of food, with the caption underneath in German reading "I can't eat any more." In one thank-you letter, there are colored pencil drawings of factories, airplanes, and cars — the America of one young artist's imagination.

The American Friends Service Committee, formed in 1917, is a Quaker Service organization still in existence.

When Nichole Mathews found out that her pastor's wife, at First Friends Church in Indianapolis, had a binder full of such thank-you letters, she felt compelled to do something with them. But she didn't know exactly what. Mathews is a German teacher at Hamilton Southeastern High School.

"I took some-pictures," she says. "I tried to photo archive it. And then I had it for 11 years and about two years ago, I went to the Indiana Historical Society. I went to their curation room, and I got to talk to some people there."

She eventually sparked the interest of a friend of hers, Jenny Ambroise, who just so happened to be the Marian University gallery director.

"I gave the collection to her," says Mathews. "She was amazed by the work, was really excited about the project. ... And my students began translating the different works."

Matthew's students began translating the German in the thank-you letters. You can see these translations side by side with the thank-you letters in the exhibition.

This collaborative project commenced in the fall of 2015.

They applied for — and received — help from two grants. The Talbot Street Art Fair Grant allowed the artwork to be matted and framed, and a Launching Inquiries Grant allowed Mathews' class to visit the exhibition.

There were challenges along the way. Mathews' students needed help translating the German into English, a task that really became a challenge with one particular thank-you letter that was hard to decipher.

"They were the names of students from like 90 years ago," says Mathews. "The students had put together a thank-you, it was a kid's drawing and they had signed all their names to it. But it was the old cursive script, Sütterlin, which is really hard to read."

So they enlisted the help of the Marian College German teacher Wendy Westphal and her husband Mathias Westphal, the latter who translated the Sütterlin script.

And thus the exhibition materials provide many educational activities for the HSE students as well as History and German students at Marian University.

The exhibition is very much a work in progress, according to exhibition curator Crystal Vicars-Pugh, Assistant Professor of Art at Marian.

"It's documentation that people haven't seen before," she says. I'm assuming that, as it continues to hopefully get shown, more and more information will come about. We're still uncovering things that we didn't know about."

And both Vicars-Pugh and Mathews hope that Giving Voices to Ghosts might become a traveling exhibition.

"I came up with the exhibition title when we were framing and matting this summer," says Vicars-Pugh. "We're giving voices to ghosts, because I'm pretty sure that none of these people are still alive."

Vicars-Pugh's favorite pieces in the exhibition are the letters that contain just words, not artwork.

"I'm very interested in the penmanship and how it looks like a font," she says.

The children in the AFSC feeding sites were only receiving around 670 calories per day, but it was enough to keep them among the living.

"They were so thankful about what they were receiving..." says Vicars-Pugh. "At face value this looks like a bunch of old kids drawings. But then we start to dig deeper and start to realize it's a lot about gratitude and thankfulness just to be able to stay alive because of someone else being kind."


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