1.5 million buttons for the 1.5 million child victims of the Holocaust – the students of a small New Zealand Jewish school pay homage to a generation lost and learn about hope in times of darkness
In 2008 the students of Moriah School, a small Jewish school in central Wellington, New Zealand, set themselves the mammoth task of collecting 1.5 million buttons – one button for every child killed during the Holocaust of WW2. Collected from throughout New Zealand and around the world it took two and half years to reach their target.
Since then the students, as part of the New Zealand Children’s Holocaust Memorial and in conjunction with the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, have been fundraising to build a permanent memorial to house the buttons. Named ‘Bewilderment’, the memorial will honour the lost children of the Holocaust as well as act as a vehicle for ongoing education.
An enormous number, 1.5 million buttons laid in a straight line would stretch 26kms. Seeing the many containers and boxes full of tiny buttons is both moving and heartbreaking. That each button represents an actual child, an actual life, is hard to comprehend.
Most of the buttons represent children the students know nothing about – they don’t know their names, where they came from or their stories, however there are many buttons that tell real stories, termed ‘vestiges of love’, like…
- The paua button sent by Ozi Zilberstein van Straten of Beersheva, Israel, to represent her older brother Harvey Zilberstein. Harvey was barely five years old when he was killed, along with their mother, at Auschwitz concentration camp in February 1944. “This button I send with love, not just as a number, a part of millions, but a name, a neshama (Hebrew for “soul” or “spirit). Thank you for remembering him, and all the others.” Ozi Zilberstein van Straten
- The 88 buttons, sent from Oslo, Norway, by Aase Andreassen whose parents were part of the illegal Norwegian Resistance Movement. One button for each of the 88 Jewish children deported from Norway during the Holocaust, of whom only two survived.
- The 600 buttons sent in by the daughter of a Polish woman who, as child, was brought to New Zealand as an orphan just before the outbreak of WW2, leaving behind her four brothers and sisters, all of whom perished in the Holocaust.
These and many more ‘vestiges of love’ can be read on the New Zealand Children’s Holocaust Momorial website (www.nzchmemorial.com).
Justine Hitchcock the former principal of Moriah School, initiated the Button Project but says it was the dedication and determination of the children that has seen the project evolve.
“From the actual visible and tangible aspects such as collecting, counting and storing thousands of buttons to a much deeper awareness with a resounding affect of remembrance, understanding and education – it was children who led the project and children to whom the project is dedicated.
“Each button represents a child who was not able to be protected by the society it was born into. But each button was collected and cared for by a child wrapped in a community of support. And so each button represents not loss and despair, but hope and progress.”
Ms Hitchcock, who is not Jewish, says that although the Button Project is primarily in remembrance of the children killed during the Holocaust it’s important to stress that Holocaust remembrance is not just a “Jewish thing”.
“The Holocaust is something that all people need to learn from. Genocide has happened and continues to happen to many cultures around the world and the dangers of prejudice and discrimination are universal.”
Former Moriah School students Caitlin Rutherford and Benya Klapaukh, both teenagers now, were primary-school age when the project began and for Caitlin the enormity of the number and the significance of the project were hard to comprehend at such a young age.
“At the time the importance of the project didn’t really process in my head but when we started doing the research and began to understand what we were doing it took a toll and I began to realise what a huge number it is. Now that I’m older it makes a lot more sense and makes me want to be part of it even more.”
For Benya learning about the Holocaust and collecting the buttons taught him that even in times of such hurt and fear, good people shine through.
“One quote that we heard from a survivor was: “In a time like the Holocaust it is like living in a pitch-black room, but every time someone does something nice for you, it’s like them coming in and lighting a candle. You need to focus on the light.”
“The project taught me about people, that there are good people out there. It has also taught me to ‘focus on the light’, to always focus on the good things in life, which is what I hope the project and memorial will represent in the future: to inspire people, to ensure the children did not die in vain – that they are remembered, to teach people about what happened only 70 years ago so it never happens again and to always focus on the good and not the bad.
“For me It’s also special that the buttons were collected by children, for children. I don’t know exactly what it is about that. Maybe we are living the life they didn’t get to, but this seems like a really important component of the project – less than 25 children collecting 1.5 million buttons in three years is pretty impressive and inspiring.”
All different colors, shapes and sizes, the similarity between buttons and children is poignant. There is a line from one of the ‘vestiges of love’ which reads: “Buttons are used to hold something together, to unite. We all need to unite if we shall rid the world of cruelty, hate, racism and violence.”
In essence these buttons remind us to be kinder and in the words of the students of Moriah School: “As wrong as the Holocaust was, it can teach us all a very important lesson – we can use it to prevent something as tragic as this from ever happening again. That means if you see someone being teased or mocked about their race or religion you need too stick up for them. A little bit of teasing on the street could lead to everybody else ganging up on that race or religion. We want everyone to think about this.”