Young historians make their marks

Scholars: Two Maryland students have documentaries in today's finals of a national competition.

June 15, 2000|By Rasmi Simhan | Rasmi Simhan,SUN STAFF

A Holocaust survivor didn't tell his children or his parents about the time he spent in the Warsaw ghetto. But he told students and their video camera.

Fighter pilots spent hours telling another student about the Battle of Midway. He in turn spent 20 hours editing their words on film.

These documentaries, both by Maryland students, reached the final round of the 25th annual National History Day contest this week in Washington. Winners in four presentation categories will be announced today(in a ceremony that will be Webcast live from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on

Given the theme "Turning Points in History," more than 700,000 middle- and high-school students nationwide developed projects about historic events from any era and any country that sparked their interest. Although national finalists will win money and scholarships for their work, organizers say they want all students to bring home a different prize: the view of history as a living, human science they can relate to.

For the sixth year in a row, Calvert High School senior Thomas Thompson began working on his project as soon as the previous contest ended in June, and as early as the rules allow.

In sixth grade, he started small with a cardboard exhibit on the Great Compromise of the U.S. Constitution, and later tried several slide shows, including one on John Adams and the Declaration of Independence. When he wanted to break into film in high school, he found local videographer Mike Goggi by word-of-mouth and learned to create documentaries.

Thompson managed to mix work and play during vacations, talking to Japanese citizens in Hawaii for a project on the attack at Pearl Harbor, and trekking nearly two miles on a steamy day to find the remains of Enrico Fermi's nuclear reactor during a trip to Chicago.

This year, one of his interviewees, dive bomber pilot Richard Best, talked to him long-distance for nearly an hour, then invited Thompson to visit him while he vacationed with his daughter in Washington.

Thompson kept "labyrinthine logs" of footage and spent about 20 hours squeezing a year's worth of research into a 10-minute documentary about a pivotal five minutes in the Battle of Midway.

He says he plans to bring living history to the classroom when he teaches high school history.

"A lot of my teachers don't get that involved, and there's a lot of bookwork," says 16-year-old Thompson. "I want to get more involved.

"There's a reason history has the word `story' in it. It is just one long, great story -- the greatest story ever."

Another project by Maryland students began with a personal story -- the story of seventh-grader Michelle Gajewski's grandfather and his experience in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.

"In general, I understood there was a lot of pain and horror, but I didn't understand exactly from what," says 11-year-old Gajewski. "By researching these in depth, you see how awful it was for people to survive during that time, and the amazing courage they had to rebel against the Nazis."

The technical side of film production wasn't too tricky for Gajewski and her three teammates, but it took the group months to adjust to the emotional impact.

"When you just read something, you get knowledge," Gajewski says. "When you actually have someone who was really there, you also get their emotions. You really have a feeling for it."

Although the interviews and graphics "are what really touched people," according to student narrator Elizabeth Freed, family and friends who saw early versions of the documentary suggested the group supplement its work with more historic information. The students added statistics to the film, which includes a montage of photos, Hebrew music and an interview with Gajewski's grandfather.

Some of the group's members found they liked history a little more after working on the project.

"I never took an interest in history at all, but once I found a topic it was incredibly interesting," says 13-year-old Freed. "I never thought I'd get connected to it."

"Generation H: National History Day," a documentary that follows students as they design their projects, will air June 24 on The History Channel.

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