Ten years ago, the children of Moriah School in Wellington, New Zealand, under the guidance of their principal, embarked on a project to remember the children of the Holocaust. They collected buttons in an attempt to comprehend and illustrate the sheer vastness of the number of children killed, and ensure they would not be forgotten.
1.5 million Buttons for 1.5 million children
They collected 1.5 million buttons from all over the world, each button representing a child that perished.
Why a button? The symbol of a button embodies these core ideas:
- each button is unique, as indeed a child is unique.
- each button is circular, as is the cycle of life.
- Buttons hold clothes together, and a child is an integral part of a family.
- Buttons adorned the clothing left behind by the children as they entered the concentration camps.
Ex-Moriah school pupil, Benya Klaupaukh, recalls what he learned from primary school, when he was a founding student in the Moriah button collection:
“My primary school was very small, with only 20 pupils. At my school we were learning about the Holocaust and one fact we came across was that 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered. Our principal wanted to make me and my fellow students understand the magnitude of this number, so we began our project, [which became the] New Zealand Children’s Holocaust Memorial, collecting 1.5 million buttons, one for each child that perished in the Holocaust. So, 20 children, no older than 12 years old were supposed to collect and count 1.5 million buttons. This even to me, looking back sounds completely ridiculous, that’s 50,000 buttons per student. However crazy we thought this idea was, we never gave up, we never stopped making posters, we never stopped telling people about our ‘ambitious’ project, and we never stopped counting the buttons that were pouring in.”
Buttons were collected, cleaned and counted by the children of Moriah School over a two-year period – each representing the loss of a child during the Holocaust. When understood as a whole, the project conveys a powerful, poignant and disturbing message: one of loss that is simply unfathomable.
But buttons alone are not enough. The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand committed itself to creating a travelling memorial
that will not only remember these children, but also raise awareness of the plight of refugees and encourage people to become upstanders in their communities.
The design begins with a single box on wheels containing a single button denoting a single child/a single life. As the boxes on wheels grow in size, each unit contains more buttons – representing a family, a class, a school, a city – and each growing in height of container and number of buttons.
The memorial consists of twelve table-like vitrines, not unlike nesting tables, and can be configured to suit any interior space. It is constructed out of steel, glass and wood, with red wheels which are symbolically locked. The escalating succession of ever larger vitrines, holding ever more buttons, attempts to reflect the absurdity of the incomprehensibly large number of children who perished, so much so that the buttons in the largest units are out of reach for even the tallest grown-up. The tallest unit reaches a height of 2.36 metres, towering over viewers, enabling them to reflect on the scale of The Holocaust and the 1.5 million innocent murdered children.
Stories of the Children
The exhibition includes information about children’s experiences in the Holocaust and stories from children who survived . Below is an example of a child’s testimony included in this exhibition.
“I was 4 years and 7 months when I was
deported to Terezin (Theresienstadt), a
concentration camp not far from Prague, the
city where I was born…The war ended a few weeks later. My mother, my father and I were liberated, and we were able to leave the camp. Almost immediately after we left, typhoid broke out in the camp. The disease killed many of those who had survived until the end of the war. We took another train, this time back to Prague – and to life – and eventually we immigrated to New Zealand, where I arrived as an 8-year-old child. What do I remember about Terezin? Wetting my bed and being terrified in case they found out. The smell and feel of a strange substance in the air – ash from the crematorium in Terezin. But what I remember most of all is being frightened, all the time, for myself, for my parents, always fear, like a lump in my chest.”
There are worksheets related to the children’s testimonies that students are able to engage with as they go through the exhibition. For example, students read the following poem by Avraham Koplowicz, who was born in Lodz in 1930:
“When I grow up and reach the age of 20, I’ll set out to see the enchanting world. I’ll take a seat in a bird with a motor; I’ll rise and soar high into space. I’ll fly, sail, hover Over the lovely faraway world. I’ll soar over rivers and oceans Skyward shall I ascend and blossom, A cloud my sister, the wind my brother.”
Students are then asked: Many children expressed their hopes for the future during the war. Avraham wrote this poem while living in terrible conditions in the Lodz Ghetto. Yet this text presents a completely different reality – how do you think that can be? What is the role of imagination in survival?
Upstanders, not bystanders
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” – Primo Levi, Holocaust Survivor
In conjunction, but separate to the memorial, HCNZ collaborated with the National Library for an important educational component that provides engaging historical and contemporary material, again serving the purpose to teach the importance of standing up to injustice. This material will also have a component which tells the story of those New Zealand families who have settled in the country after escaping from the Holocaust and who talk about life arriving in a foreign land.
The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand is committed to educating our young people to learn from the past, to stand against prejudice, discrimination and apathy. To welcome people to our shores, and to respect our fellow person. The memorial is complemented with a series of panels that will travel which tell the events around the Holocaust, those with connections to New Zealand, also a section that will allow students to explore what it means to be an upstander and not a bystander. Students are encouraged on their own Instagram accounts to tag #Upstander and share their stories of what they have done.
Teachers will receive professional development seminars on how to communicate with students around modern issues of prejudice, discrimination, apathy and reading for understanding. Giving them ideas of what they can do prior to a visit, during the visit and afterwards to make sure that students feel safe in communicating their feelings about what they have learned. These lessons will also be available on the website. Examples of questions that teachers can ask students before the exhibition include:
- What are two examples of discrimination you have witnessed or heard of?
- What are two examples of prejudice or stereotyping you have witnessed or heard of?
These learning materials were created in relation to New Zealand Achievement Objectives for both Social Studies and History to make them easy to integrate into a teacher’s curriculum.
The memorial will be accompanied by a series of panel discussions with topics including refugees who will talk about their journey to New Zealand, with speakers from the time of the Nazi Regime, to an Eritrean refugee. Below are examples of the upcoming panel discussions.
- The Refugee Experience in New Zealand: Two Unique Perspectives
- Challenging Discrimination & Prejudice in Aotearoa: What it means to Stand Up
- Disability Rights: Historic & Contemporary Views
- What are the possible implications of using objects to represent lives, or lives lost?
- What can we learn from testimonies from survivors who were children during the Holocaust?
- What are ways you can encourage students to stand up when they see injustice in their personal lives?
Chris Harris is a former High School History teacher and for the past two years is the National Director of Education at the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, he travels the country educating the students on the Holocaust, human rights and genocide. He has studied at Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies and every two years he takes up to 30 teachers to Yad Vashem to learn at the school. He believes strongly in the legacy of educating students in Holocaust, genocide and human rights.