Pembroke Hill sophomore Jay Mehta and upper school history teacher Sam Knopik have been chosen to participate in the prestigious Normandy: Sacrifice For Freedom Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute, sponsored by National History Day. Only 15 student/teacher teams from across the country were selected for this honor.
Jay and Sam will work together on a course of study that concludes with a trip to Normandy, France to honor a WW II Silent Hero who died during or after the D-Day landings. During the next six months, they will select a Silent Hero from the Kansas City area who is memorialized at the Normandy American Cemetery and uncover his/her life story. They will do this through readings, historical research and primary sources such as war records, draft cards or interviews with descendants.
Sam, who has been associated with National History Day for 20 years, explained that he and Jay will complete a required reading list and will participate in weekly assignments throughout second semester. “Jay will research a fallen soldier from D-Day, and my role will be to support him in any way I can.”
In June, Jay and Sam will attend a series of seminars at the University of Maryland and put the finishing touches on their research project at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. From there, they will be travel to France, continue the seminars and visit major sites such as Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery. Jay will deliver a eulogy for his solder at his/her gravesite.
All expenses, including transportation, room and board, courses and materials, are paid through the generosity of Albert H. Small.
“With research assistance from their teachers, the students become deeply connected to their selected Silent Heroes,” said National History Day executive director Dr. Cathy Gorn. “On that final day, when students read their eulogies, they memorialize someone they came to know, someone whose story they became responsible for telling. I am confident Jay will walk away with a powerful understanding of the sacrifice so many Silent Heroes made in World War II.”
Jay is looking forward to beginning the project and has high expectations for what he will learn. “I hope to gain a better understanding of the sacrifices made by those who have protected our country,” he said. “I am also truly excited to be able to contribute something of my own to the history of World War II – to be able to tell a story not yet told. It’s new terrain for me, and I am eager to explore it.”
Over the past several years, Jay has been involved with National History Day activities. In 2015, he placed first in the nation for his individual performance on Winston Churchill. He received the Salute To Courage Award at the Grand Opening of the National World War II Museum’s Road To Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries. During the 2016 National History Day competition, Jay won the Outstanding State entry from Missouri and was invited to present his performance on the first summiting of Mount Everest at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
It was through these experiences that Jay learned of the Silent Hero project. “When I looked into it, it became clear this was a program I would love. While preparing for previous NHD competitions, I have had wonderful experiences speaking with veterans and preserving their stories, so this Institute really fits the topics I have become passionate about, while also seeming rigorous, challenging and new.”
Sam believes the Silent Hero program is unique and important. “It is not for an award or a scholarship,” he explained. “There is nothing to ‘win’. The product of this work will be a direct contribution to the body of knowledge of D-Day. We will bring to light the individual story of one soldier/sailor/pilot, and it will humanize the war experience. It is important work.”
Sam is thrilled to be working with Jay on the project for both professional and personal reasons. “Jay is a scholar, and he possesses a commitment to the study of history that makes his potential findings for this project exciting.” He continued, “Both of my grandparents served in WW II - one was in the Pacific, and one was in Europe. WW II is an important chapter in human history, and I am excited to discover something new about it.”
After returning from Normandy, Sam and Jay will create a website about Jay’s fallen hero. Additionally, they will present their research and a recap of their experiences to area audiences.