In early June of 1994, my wife, along with our German exchange student, Laura Koepke, drove a friend and me to the airport to head out for the 50th anniversary of the Allied landing on the Normandy beaches during World War II. Laura had spent the previous 10 months with us, attended the school where I taught, went on vacation with us and was soon leaving to return to her home in the former East Germany.
She had come to us through the American Institute for Foreign Study Foundation’s Academic Year in America high school exchange program that my wife and I had just started working with and continued for the next nine years, placing several students in homes around the area.
While Laura was with us, we visited family in southern Illinois and the Chicago suburbs, we’d gone on spring break and visited Washington, D.C., taken a tour of the White House and generally showed her as much of the American way of life as possible. Her parents had come to the United States to visit during her time here.
As a student at Urbana High School, Laura took classes as a senior but still had another year to go to school when she got home. She was not in any of my classes, but she rode to school with me or with my wife every day. I was working at my desk one evening when she got home after her history class had seen the movie “Schindler’s List.” She came quietly to the door, looked in with tears in her eyes and, before I could ask what was the matter, she said, “I can’t believe my people could do things like that.”
I had hated to leave for the D-Day trip before Laura left to go home, but I had press credentials for my friend (as a photographer) and me and a family pass from the Pentagon I had received in my cousin’s name who had landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, and would have the opportunity to meet D-Day veterans where my cousin had landed.
My wife, a colleague and I had taken a group of high school students and teachers and other adults there the year before when I’d asked the courier to stop there on the way from Caen to Paris. It was a moving experience for us there.
In the years since, Laura has returned for a visit twice, and I met her at Checkpoint Charlie near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin when I was hosting a tour of World War II battlefields. I tried to buy her lunch, but she said it was too expensive there, and I rode with her on the train to her apartment in East Berlin, met her son and had dinner with them. Everything was less expensive away from the city center.
I keep her on the email list of family members because, like our last exchange student from Italy, she is family. She notified us when her mother died, as I had notified her when my parents and my wife’s mother and my son had died. We exchange cards on those occasions and on holidays. She helps translate some German for me once in a while, when needed. Laura and her family visited with us when we were in Scotland about 10 years ago for the International Clan Gathering.
Truth be known, we have more contact with her than some of our blood relationships. In her relatively short stay with us when she was a curious 16-year-old learning about a new culture, Laura made an impact in our lives and found a lasting place in our hearts. And I think she carries a little piece of us and her time in Urbana in her heart as well.
We received another card from her recently, telling us that her family had been camping at a mansion in Normandy. “Camping is cool,” she wrote, “even for folks older than 19, since all sites have little houses to rent with your own bathroom and kitchen and real beds. And especially in France, it’s way less expensive to stay at a camping site than in a hotel. And from Normandy, it’s just an hour ride by train to get to Paris.”
She then described how they visited the landing beaches at Normandy and walked through the American Cemetery there, adding: “We put a little flower on every Illinoisan tombstone we found.”