National History Day
Exhibit on WW II French forger wins MNW students trip to the finals
How do you create a winning National History Day project? With a lot of research, a well-designed exhibit, and an especially a good choice of subject.
Two students from Manson Northwest Webster High School will now be headed to the NHD National Finals thanks to their study of a little-known forger in the French Resistance who saved countless Jewish people from death in Nazi concentration camps.
Julie Quade and Matt Helmers, a junior and freshman from MNW, took top honors at the state-level National History Day competition last week at the Iowa Event Center. They will now head to the finals at the University of Maryland in College Park to compete for scholarships and prizes.
“I picked this person because it’s a new topic,” Quade said. “He had to keep it secret for a long time because he was a forger. We decided to show this because he saves thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust, and we thought his story need to be shared.”
Adolfo Kaminsky continued creating forgeries for other governments and in other conflicts after World War II ended, so he kept that part of his life secret until quite recently, the students said.
After learning about Kaminsky from “Up Front” magazine, a New York Times publication for students, the pair discovered that he was still alive, living in France.
“They interviewed him. He’s 91, and he still goes to his laboratory every day,” said Jenny Westerhoff, MNW TAG teacher.
Quade said they wrote back and forth with Kaminsky’s daughter.
Judges at the regional and state level liked this choice of subject.
“I think they were impressed that it’s a new topic,” Quade said.
“That, and the fact that we actually got an interview. Everyone was impressed by that,” Helmers said. “You’d say that and they just say, ‘Oh, wow.'”
Much of their information came from the memoir recently written by Kaminsky’s daughter. Finding other sources was challenging.
“A lot of the websites we did find on him were in French,” Quade said.
“And because it’s such a new topic, there isn’t really that much other information except for what his daughter put out,” Helmers said.
After setting up their exhibit, the students will have the chance to visit Washington, D.C., to explore.
“They’ll definitely want to visit the Holocaust Museum,” Westerhoff said.
Quade has been there before. It’s her third year going to the national level.
“Her group placed eighth in the nation last year,” Westerhoff said.
Having lots of sources is one of the secrets; the Kaminsky project has an 18-page bibliography.
“Yes, it’s good to have a couple good sources, but it’s important to have a wide variety of sources,” Quade said.
“Also the impact of the event,” Helmers said. “Sports topics generally seem to not do as well, because they don’t impact as many people.”
Quade has more WW II research to do.
After the national competition from June 11 to 15, Quade and Westerhoff will be going to Normandy, France, in another NHD opportunity.
“We got accepted to the Normandy Institute,” Westerhoff said. ”There are 15 student-teacher teams across the nation that were selected.”
Kaminsky was barely more than a student when he started his forgeries which meant the difference between life and death for so many.
“He was known as the Paris Forger, and the police were looking for him,” Westerhoff said. “They had no idea he was 17 years old.”
“They figured it was an older, more experienced guy,” Helmers said.
Helmers said Kaminsky got his start working at a cleaners or a laundromat, learning about chemicals he would use to remove the red Jewish mark from passports and other documents.
Quade enjoys doing the research.
“I’m not a big fan of history classes, the names and dates and stuff,” she said, “but I think going more into depth on a personal side of things — looking at certain people and certain topics is more fun for me.”
“The human side of history,” said Westerhoff.