Restoring a lost childhood

Holocaust Rembrance Day: 'One and a Half Million Buttons’ display is one of 1st places local council shows guests.

One and a half million button display (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
One and a half million button display
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
In 2010, high-school girls from Efrat took buttons with them on their trip to Poland, to place on tombstones of children who died during the Holocaust.
Three years earlier, they had collected buttons for the “One and a Half Million Buttons” display at their town’s Aseh Hayil School.
“This trip was a closure for the girls who still come to visit the display,” says Suzanne Weiss, who initiated the project and other educational projects about the Holocaust for elementary-school children.
The button display is one of the first places that the Efrat local council shows guests, including Knesset members and officials. Located at the entrance to the Aseh Hayil Elementary School, hundreds of cheerful children pass it every day, testifying to the continuity of the Jewish people despite the Nazis’ plans.
The display and the learning kits that evolved from the collection have helped commemorate the Holocaust and the 1.5 million children who perished. Weiss, who was a teacher at Aseh Hayil, came up with the idea in 2007.
“The number 1.5 million is very hard for children to grasp,” she says. “I was inspired by the Paper Clips Project, where junior high-school students in Tennessee collected millions of clips to commemorate the victims.”
Weiss was born in Belgium, a second-generation survivor.
Her late mother, Lilly Moskowitz, grew up in Slovakia and spent three and a half years in Auschwitz.
A few years ago, the family discovered that Moskowitz had helped save Jews in the camp.
Weiss approached the Efrat Education Department, headed by Tali Cohen, and after a few attempts at other schools, Aseh Hayil agreed to participate in the project.
The aim of the project was to commemorate the children, and to collect testimonies that would become the basis of educational activities.
Tali Samuel, an English teacher who was then the seventh- and eighth-grade coordinator, implemented the project with her pupils.
“Children couldn’t grasp such a number,” she agrees. “They thought that 1.5 million buttons would go in one bucket. We put together a group of 19 girls, some with a connection to the Holocaust, some with no such connection.”
The button, she explains, has symbolic value: “Each button is a different color and size, like each child in the Holocaust who was different. The button is strong and sturdy and has significance. When a button falls off a shirt, we feel vulnerable. The children in the Holocaust were defenseless. Some people become attached to buttons, like the spare button on a sweater. In addition, the button is round and symbolizes the cycle of life – cut short with these children.”
Sending letters and emails to relatives, friends, neighbors and teachers, the girls explained the importance of the button project and also requested survivors’ testimonies.
Schools throughout the country collected buttons; some counted them out before sending.
“We received buttons and letters with testimonies from the US, Brazil, Switzerland, Turkey, Japan and elsewhere,” recalls Weiss. “Schools in Canada and Singapore created activities based on the buttons. A delegation from New York’s Solomon Schechter School met the girls in Jerusalem, giving them many buttons from New York.”
The team of girls met weekly at Weiss’s house, where they studied the testimonies. They filled up buckets of buttons, in Samuel’s home as well. By counting the buttons, they had some idea of the immensity of the number.
Lining up the buttons in rows of 10, they saw that 100 buttons is a lot, and a larger number all the more so.
The community also counted – parents, retirees and some Holocaust survivors.
“I could have been one of those buttons,” said one woman who was a child in France's Gurs concentration camp during the war.
For 10 months the girls collected buttons, which were eventually placed in a huge wooden box at the school’s entrance in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2007. The children felt the buttons in their hands, realizing that six million was four times the number collected.
The Hayil B’Efrata Parents Association and Weiss’s husband Israel, who photographed the project, helped build nine containers. The containers, symbolizing nine months of pregnancy and the continuity of life, were of different heights, representing the different heights of the pupils, and formed a mosaic of colors.
“A man from the center of Israel had a button factory and sent crates of buttons with nearly half a million buttons, according to color,” recalls Samuel. “His father was a survivor who never spoke about his experiences, despite the son’s efforts to encourage him to talk. The father heard of the project and its importance to the next generation and related the story to his son.”
The display was dedicated in 2008.
Behind separate frames are individual buttons with stories. Some came from survivors who had published their memoirs and requested that the school’s teachers and students read their stories.
Peter Greenfield, the subject of former MK and education minister Yossi Sarid’s book Papatzik: He Didn’t Know His Name was five years old when he was released from Auschwitz. He heard about the project and sent a button.
Another button came from Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who was in Buchenwald as a child and wrote his memoirs in Do Not Harm the Child. Authors Uri Orlev, Dorit Orgad and Nurit Yuval sent buttons.
Yuval sent a button from the uniform of her father, who had been a soldier in the British Army in World War II. Fashion designers Dorin Frankfurt, Ronen Chen and Naama Bezalel also sent buttons.
Hagai Lev, a Givati soldier who fell in Gaza in 2002, had been a student at Aseh Hayil. His mother, Noa, sent a button from his uniform, which he had worn a few weeks before he fell, while visiting Birkenau with other IDF officers.
MOSKOWITZ WAS the inspiration for the story in the illustrated book Savta, Why Do You Have a Number on Your Arm?, which Weiss wrote in Hebrew and self-published.
“My mother was an active partner and encouraged me to write the book,” says Weiss. “She approved the illustrations and we worked on it for one and a half years. When she became ill with cancer and moved in to live with us, she still continued working on the book with me. She was hospitalized. I presented her in the hospital with a ‘dummy copy’ of the book made by the designer, and told her the book was finally published.”
Four days later, she died with satisfaction that the book was complete.
“My daughter, Tzippi, was about nine when she asked my mother the question in the book’s title. My mother then related her childhood years before and during the Holocaust,” recalls Weiss. “My mother used to speak to kids on their level, without shocking them. The grandmother in the book explains gently about how she had to leave her doll, her siddur, her hanukkia behind. She explains how her mother died. The granddaughter asks how they coped.”
The book is not a precise record of Moskowitz’s story, but is based on it. It ends with an illustration of the grandmother and her two brothers in Israel, following an illustration of the destroyed town in Slovakia.
Moskowitz was one of nine children, and she came to Israel many years later, after moving to Belgium.
Weiss, who teaches and studies at the Michlalah Jerusalem College’s Holocaust Education Center, was presenting a class last year to first-year student teachers on methods of teaching the Holocaust to young children.
The center’s director, Esther Farbstein, was present at the lesson when Weiss read from her book. She saw the potential the book could have in relating the Holocaust to young children. Together with the center, Weiss developed a learning unit with posters and a teachers’ guide, which was also produced in multimedia.
The Holocaust Education Center, which has the support of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, prepares curricula, materials and units that focus on Jewish life in the Holocaust and the Jewish reaction to the events. The center takes an interdisciplinary view of the Holocaust, working with sources that include Jewish law, history, Jewish thought, literature and art, through the use of multimedia and visual media. Academic courses and daylong seminars train teachers how to transmit the Holocaust on various levels, emphasizing the spiritual fortitude of the Jewish people. Students study Holocaust-era sermons and response; dilemmas of morality, values and faith. Its Zachor website (in Hebrew and English) provides educators with information, including archival documents, about Jewish life before and during the Holocaust.
The early childhood education track in the Michlalah includes a one-year program for teaching the Holocaust to young children – with a Jewish angle. Farbstein notes that there are many books about the Holocaust, and if one substitutes the word “gypsy” for “Jew,” the book produces the same feeling. Weiss’s book emphasizes Jewish motifs.
Inspired by the button collection, Col. (res.) Bentzi Gruber of Efrat wrote up the story of his grandfather and cousin, who were sent on one of the last transports from Hungary to Auschwitz. With the help of the Education Department’s Cohen, Weiss created posters with pictures from the monument of iron shoes on the Danube River commemorating the Jews who were shot there. The display of shoes was integrated with the story of the buttons, and a learning kit for seventh graders prepared. Today, pupils in Efrat study the new kit before 10 Tevet, the “general Kaddish day” for victims who lack identifiable yahrzeits.
Buttons are still coming in. With about 250,000 extra buttons, Weiss and Samuel developed a program for bat-mitzva girls, inspired by the story of Irit Cooper, a child in the Minsk Ghetto who sewed a doll with button eyes for her sister.
Weiss organizes events for mothers and daughters in which they receive a suitcase kit based on testimony of a child survivor. After studying the child’s story, they prepare dolls together out of simple materials, “with the hope of restoring... in some small measure their lost childhood.” Efrat’s Orot Etzion school has 90 dolls, and Aseh Hayil over 200.
Weiss’s hope is to reach out to as many schools as possible with her projects to commemorate the children who perished in the Holocaust.