By Jeffrey Goldman, Words Alive Board Chair & ABG volunteer at Monarch
Stephen Keiley’s 8th grade class at the Monarch School was recently visited by members of the Butterfly Project – an organization devoted to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. Three representatives of the Butterfly Project – each of them children of Holocaust survivors – shared both their parents’ memories as well as their own remembrances of what it was like to grow up as a child of a survivor.
The key message the survivors communicated was that in spite of the horrific experiences their parents were subjected to during World War II, they remained “positive, hopeful, and optimistic” for the remainder of their lives. The volunteers made it clear to the children — all of whom have been impacted by homelessness and other significant challenges — that “even though you can go through the most difficult time in your life, it is possible to still have hope and attain a highly successful and rewarding life.”
At the outset of the session, the volunteers handed out cards to the children with quotes from survivors about life before the war, during the war, and after the war. The 8th graders were then called upon throughout the one-hour presentation to read the often poignant quote contained on their card.
During the presentation, photos of stores with anti-Jewish graffiti and photos of people wearing yellow stars to identify them as Jews were displayed. One volunteer shared a real Jewish yellow star as well as her father’s concentration camp uniform. She showed the children where her father had cut a hole in his shirt to hide a spoon, and explained that the spoon gave him dignity because he was then able to eat soup with it instead of drinking it from a bowl. She also had a student try on her father’s cap — which was too small for the young boy — in order to show the children how malnutrition had actually shrunk her father’s body.
One particularly powerful story was about one presenter’s mother, who was “adopted” by a slightly older woman in the concentration camp after her own parents were killed by the Nazis. Her adopted mother came from a prominent catering family, and was chosen by the Nazi officers to cook them food on both a daily basis and for the large parties they would host for visiting officers. When she was caught sneaking food to her “daughters” (she also adopted another parent-less girl at the camp) and threatened with death, she stood up to the Nazis and told them they’d never kill her since they loved her food so much. They backed off their threat, looked the other way as she fed her “daughters” leftover food from her kitchen, and as a result, there are 22 lives in the world — children and grandchildren of the two girls whose lives she saved.
At the end of the session, the volunteers handed out ceramic butterflies for the children to paint. These will be returned to the volunteers who will fire them in a kiln and then bring them back to the class so that they can be installed on a wall at the Monarch School. Ultimately, the goal of the Butterfly Project (www.thebutterflyprojectnow.org) is to have 1.5 million butterflies on the walls of temples, churches, schools, and other public facilities all over the world, representing every one of the children who were killed during the Holocaust.
At the close of the session, during a question-and-answer discussion, one particularly astute student asked the children of the survivors, “Do you personally forgive the Nazis?” One volunteer answered, “Maybe not forgive, but I have moved on. Because if you don’t, you’re letting them win, letting them get what they want.”
Teacher Stephen Keiley ended the day by thanking the volunteers and telling them, “By telling your stories you are putting life, putting a face, on these stories that we read about.”