By Sara Vogler, 17, Saugus HS
Print This Post
Sara Vogler believes that it is up to youth to create a better future.

Last year I had a chance to go to Poland. Since it’s my homeland and I was born there, you might think I jumped at it.

But I didn’t want to go at first. I didn’t want to miss all the homework, lectures and tests. I thought it would be very stressful. I would have to make up work, and I hate that.

Also, I would be talking to Polish kids, and I was worried about how they would perceive me. Maybe they wouldn’t listen. Maybe they’d be talking in the back of the room.

My father, who is a filmmaker, and I were invited to show some of his short films about our family to high school students. Our sponsor, a professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, wanted us to help students see what it’s like to be different, as Polish Jews. (There are very few Jews left in Poland—most of them were killed in World War II.)
Sitting with me in my bedroom, my mother coaxed me to change my mind. She told me I would be taking "the journey of a lifetime," and that I would make new friends and see my family. So, the day before we left, I had a change of heart. I started to get excited about the trip and realized that I wanted the students and teachers to understand our story—the story of my family—and what being different meant to us.

I am not only Polish and Jewish. I also have a physical disability. Usually the first thing people notice about me is that my arms look strange—they’re way too short. I was born with TARSA Syndrome, which affects the way my bones grow, so I’ve had to go through a lot. I’ve had a lot of painful surgeries to lengthen the bones, been in and out of hospitals all my life and been teased at school because of it. Until I got treatment, I couldn’t pitch a baseball. I couldn’t comb my own hair. But that’s not what I wanted to tell the students in Poland. I wanted the students to see that, while I am disabled and it will always be part of my story, there are other things that make me beautiful and make me proud.

When my grandparents met us at the airport in Krakow, I was so happy to see them. At their house, my grandmother served tea and a special cake she made for us—Polish cheesecake, my favorite! It had been two years since I’d seen my relatives: my aunt and uncle, my cousin and my grandparents. Whenever I’m around my grandfather, even though he’s 92, I feel so much energy and life. In the morning, I awoke with new energy and I was ready to face the kids.

In a week we visited six high schools, three of them with outstanding programs for integrating disabled students with the regular student population and the renowned Krakow High School for the Arts, which my father attended. We also went to Oswiecim Cultural Center, which is located near the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz.

A movie star?

Entering each classroom, I was welcomed by warm applause as if I were a movie star. Sometimes the students stood up as if I were the president. It was 10 times better than a trip to Magic Mountain.

The students were quiet and attentive as we watched my father’s films; Three Stories, which is about the history of my family during the Holocaust, followed by A Letter to My Father, which is about me and my physical disability. My dad also introduced the Polish TV documentary, Sara, in which I explore my Polish roots.

Three Stories celebrates my grandfather’s life and tells how he lived through the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed in World War II. The film explains how my grandfather and his family were dragged off to the camps by German soldiers. He survived three different concentration camps. At one point, Nazis forced my grandfather to shovel dirt on a group of Jews who had just been shot and left in a mass grave. My grandfather noticed that one man was still alive, so he didn’t bury him. That night, the man escaped. After the war, my grandfather ran into him again—the man whose life he had helped save.

My grandfather, who was a prolific writer, scribbled poems on pieces of cloth or in the dirt while he was in the concentration camp. He risked death if the Nazis found his work, but he kept writing. It was one of the things that kept him going.

After the war, he returned to Krakow and looked for family members, but none had survived. Although he had lost everything, my grandfather decided to stay in Poland and raise a second family, which I think is a tribute to his courage. Most Jews who lived through the war left the country.

In the film, as you hear about some of my grandfather’s worst experiences, you see my father holding my grandfather’s hand. You see me painting, holding a candle, and walking down a hall with my dad. You see clips of the Poland we love—scenes of the streets of Krakow, the river that goes through it, and Wawel Castle, which is an old beautiful castle.

This film shows my grandfather’s spirit, a really relaxing, loving and nurturing energy. Although the Nazis destroyed his family, he lived and created something beautiful: his life, his work, his children. His legacy will stay with my family, me and my future kids forever.

After that film, we always showed Letter to My Father, a film about my disability. My parents left Poland so I could get medical treatment for my arms at Shriner’s Hospital in Los Angeles, which specializes in helping kids with burns, bone injuries or other conditions.

My life on the screen

My dad filmed one of my doctors describing my condition and how he was correcting it. Moving bones around isn’t an easy job, and he showed how he had cut the bones and increased my flexibility and mobility. One of my surgeries, in which they inserted a metal brace in my arm, lasted 10 hours. I had to wear the painful metal brace for six months. After that ordeal was over, I was put into numerous casts. I was in the hospital so much, I barely remember second grade.

After 15 surgeries, the doctors have been able make the bones in my arms longer and make it easier for me to use my hands.

The film emphasizes that through this struggle, I was always surrounded by loving people, both my family and the medical staff. This film is dedicated to the Shriner’s Hospital philosophy that "no one shall stand alone."

In one scene, my dad and I play basketball. I grab the ball away from my dad. My father playfully tells me, "This is not wrestling." Even though I have been through so much, I still beat my dad in basketball. I think the movie encourages people to be as strong as I have needed to be.

The third film we showed, Sara, is a documentary produced by Polish TV in 2000 when I visited my grandparents in Poland and interviewed Wislawa Szymborska, the Nobel Prize-wining Polish poet. My grandmother, who was active in Polish theater, introduced me to a television producer who was intrigued with my perspective on Poland. My grandmother and I spent hours wandering around Krakow, visiting historic landmarks and wonderful Jewish sites, with a camera crew trailing us. At one point we visited a museum that held sacred Jewish objects that had not been plundered during the war only because the Jews hid them from the Nazis. I saw sacred religious items such as a menorah, which holds candles, and a bemah, which is the special place where the Torah is kept. I saw clothes, shoes and a wedding gown. My ancestors had been wiped out, but they were not completely lost. Taking a good look at all those objects, and understanding what those items meant to them, was a way of honoring them.

As the students watched the film, I felt like a messenger, there to tell a story about the beauty of the past generation.

After the screenings, they wanted to know what American teenagers did after school and what our schools are like. We were bombarded with questions. Some of them were kid-friendly: "What’s your favorite kind of music?" I told them Celtic music—Irish music. They liked rap music. Did I surf? No. And I found out that they basically do the same things American teenagers do—listen to music, go out with their friends, do homework and hang out.

Other questions were serious and needed thinking, like: "From where do you get all your optimism?" I said I had learned from my grandfather and father who’ve been through such tough times. But instead of focusing on the human cruelty they experienced, they looked for the good in life.

I shared my optimism

Sara (fifth from the left) stands with a group of Polish students, who appreciated the poems Sara read. One of the students is holding up Sara's poem.
Photo by Pavel Vogler (Sara's dad)

They asked, "What’s your motto in life?" I told them my motto was "Life is beautiful," because you need to see the beautiful things instead of the things that make you angry or mad or confused. I read them a poem that I wrote on the topic. The students wanted a signed copy of my poem.

Life is beautiful

If you treasure it

Life has roads to travel

Paths to follow

Rules to break

But every road is an obstacle,

Every beginning starts a new life,

Today starts with you.

The gatherings always ended with my poetry about such topics as the Wawel Castle or Krakow. After each poem, there was applause. They didn’t pity me as a Jewish girl who lost her family in the Holocaust, or a poor girl with a disability. They saw me as a person who can write poetry and create films—an artist.

One student in a wheelchair was so inspired by my poems that he gave me his journal of poems and artwork. A girl named Kasia stood up to thank me for my optimism. We clicked instantly and talked about how cool it would be if we could stay in touch. We imagined making a Web site so we could communicate to all our friends and reach out to teens around the world. Now we write letters to each other, and my dad’s friend has been working on making the Web site at

My favorite meetings were in the city of Oswiecim, the city which the Nazis chose as the site of the horrific Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp during World War II.

My dad told me that many people in America think of Poland as a Jewish cemetery, that all there is to see are graves and death camps. Yet the drive to the Oswiecim Jewish Cultural Center was inspiring. I could smell the clean, soft air. From the car window, I admired the countryside, where sheep and cows were grazing. I caught a glimpse of two chimney sweepers. In Poland, spotting a chimney sweeper means good luck.

At the Jewish Cultural Center, which is located in a newly restored synagogue, people gathered to talk with us about the past, present and future. Before the screening I watched my dad praying in front of the ancient altar. I joined him to say my prayer for all the lost souls in this and other cities of Poland. Moments later I was looking at the people’s faces, old people who probably remembered the war and the young ones, like me, looking into the future. We talked about life and our perceptions of it, and how to accept people no matter their race, gender or beliefs. I saw the people’s will to remember the hate and horror of the past—but Oswiecim is not just a city of death. It is a place for the living as well as a monument for those who perished.

The next day I was crying as my grandparents wished me a safe trip home. I felt swept away in so many emotions. I was sad to be leaving my grandparents, but also sad to be leaving Poland. I felt proud to be Polish and American. I felt proud that we had accomplished what we set out to do: after seeing the films, and meeting me and my dad, the students got the message that it is OK to be different. You don’t have to hide it.