International Holocaust Remembrance Day: New Film Documents ‘Butterfly Project’ to Honor Each of 1.5 Million Children Killed by Hitler
A documentary about a unique memorial for the children who perished at the hands of the Nazis premiered at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center this week, ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday.
“Not The Last Butterfly” – co-produced and -directed by Joe Fab of “Paperclips” fame — follows the path of a special project using ceramic butterflies to honor and remember each of the 1.5 million children who were murdered during World War II.
The film documents the journey that The Butterfly Project has taken since it was created in 2006 by clay mosaic artist Cheryl Rattner Price and Jan Landau, a former teacher at the San Diego Jewish Academy, who was looking for a new way to teach the kids in her class about the Holocaust.
The decision to use butterflies for the project was inspired by Frederika “Friedl” Dicker-Brandeis, an Austrian artist who, before being sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau – was deported in 1942 to what the Nazis called the “model ghetto” of Terezin, where she used drawing and painting as a therapeutic tool to help the frightened and victimized children around her to express their emotions. She also taught them to see the butterfly as a symbol of hope – the way it is in many cultures: confined to an oppressive cocoon before it can spread its colorful wings and fly freely away.
The butterfly was also the subject of a poem, which Landau had taught her class, by Pavel Friedman – an inmate at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, who wrote of his withering hope for survival on a slip of paper in 1942. Though very little is known about Friedman after that, other than the fact that he had been deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed, the piece of paper was discovered after the liberation of the camps, and donated to the Jewish Museum in Prague.
The project kicked off when each of the San Diego Jewish Academy elementary school kids was given a ceramic butterfly to paint, along with a card listing information about a child who was killed in the Holocaust. When painted, the butterflies were placed on a mural outside the school, which generated great interest and requests to participate. Rattner Price and Landau obliged by distributing “butterfly painting kits” to anyone wishing to get involved.
The Butterfly Project has since spread to Jewish and non-Jewish schools in the US, Canada, Australia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Uruguay and Mexico. The Museum of Tolerance in California picked up on the initiative, as did a recreation center that doubles as a bomb shelter in the southern Israeli city of Sderot – frequently hit by rockets from Gaza. The film – which Rattner Price began shooting on her own in 2012, before being joined by Fab — also showed butterflies painted by Holocaust survivors, musicians and political leaders, among them former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Rattner Price said there are currently about 150,000 painted butterflies on display around the world – a far cry from the 1.5 million goal. She said, however, that even when that number is reached, she plans to keep going. “There’s no reason to stop because [the need] to continue to honor the children who died and to connect it with a child today, and with the dangers in our world today, is never-ending,” she said.
Fab told The Algemeiner about why he got involved. “Once you get a look at what’s going on, you feel Cheryl [Rattner Price]’s commitment; you see how everybody is joining in. I mean, how could I not? I was very pleased to be asked to participate. Education is so important.”
He called the Butterfly Project a “gentler introduction” to Holocaust education than other forms of learning about the Nazi genocide. He said, however, that working with teachers – another aim of the project — is “really a huge challenge.”
“I have learned with disappointment that the space available for introducing new things or expanding the curriculum is very limited,” Fab explained. “They’re testing kids on reading, mathematics and science; that’s what they want to get right. So when you bring in things that are not one of those, you’re really fighting to get it there. Though I love teachers, there’s not necessarily a huge range of change they are willing to take.”
Rattner Price told The Algemeiner that she wants the film to make audiences feel more comfortable with the difficult topic. “I hope people will feel that they don’t have to be experts on the Holocaust — that they can begin where they are and just open their hearts a little bit, and that the art gives them a softer way in. It helps you process these difficult stories and to feel that you’re creating something beautiful from something really difficult. A tribute on which you’re putting your signature. When there’s an installation people can visit, they can show their children, and every year, teachers can add to it. What I hope is that they feel not shut down like we were, when I was getting educated about the Holocaust, but that there’s just enough to make them want to actually lean in and learn more.”
On Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Butterfly Project will launch a “50-State Initiative,” urging people to contact their elected officials and talk about the need to change school curricula to include Holocaust education, which currently is mandatory in only eight states.