Effort to remember Holocaust blossoms in Squirrel Hill

It took 4 1/2 years to collect 6 million pop tabs that form a Squirrel Hill memorial to victims of the Holocaust

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At first, it was just a simple way to study a staggering statistic.

Searching for a means to give both his students and himself a way to come to grips with the 6 million Jews killed by Germany's Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945, Bill Walter, a middle school social studies teacher at Community Day School in Squirrel Hill, borrowed an idea from a school in Illinois.

Starting in 1996, Mr. Walter's students began collecting pop tabs from cans, one for each of the victims of the Holocaust, the systematic genocide of European Jews. The Nazis also killed hundreds of thousands of others judged inferior, including Roma, Slavs, the disabled and homosexuals.

School unveils Holocaust remembrance project

Community Day School's unveiled a new art work made from 6 million aluminum can tabs to represent Holocaust victims. The project was 18 years in the making. (Video by Nate Guidry; 10/31/2013)

"The pop tabs each represent a human being discarded and tossed aside without a second thought," Mr. Walter said.

In a month, they had collected nearly 25,000 and Mr. Walter thought the project was moving along well until some quick math revealed it would be two decades before they had enough at that pace.

So the endeavor blossomed into a schoolwide project at the private, pre-K-through-eighth-grade Jewish school and soon tabs were pouring in from around the world.

In 4 1/2 years, the 6 million mark had been reached and the tabs were sorted into about 150 aquariums that sat in Mr. Walter's third-floor classroom for about six years.

"It was enormous. I was worried about the weight crashing down to the second floor," he said.

Those tabs now have a new home in the Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs Holocaust Sculpture and park on the Community Day School grounds (6424 Forward Ave.), the culmination of more than a decade of work by the school's leaders, students, parents and others to be marked in a dedication ceremony at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Shaped in the form of a Star of David lying flat, the sculpture -- based on a student design -- consists of 960 glass blocks in stainless steel frames, with each block filled with 6,250 tabs to convey the scale of the loss of life. The sculpture stands up to 9 feet high in places and spans 45 feet.

"It's been unbelievably gratifying," said Community Day head of school Avi Baran Munro. "It feels satisfying to have brought it to completion. I feel we owe that to all the people who were involved in it."

Nancy and Gary Tuckfelt of Regent Square, the lead donors for the project, have a daughter who attended Community Day amid the tab drive and discussion on how to incorporate the millions of tabs into a bigger project started.

Mrs. Tuckfelt said the couple's sponsorship was inspired by a trip she and her daughter took to Europe with Holocaust survivors.

"It was just such an emotional, intense experience," she said. "We said, 'This feels right, to leave a legacy and to leave a voice for these 6 million people.' "

Sunday's ceremony will feature local elected officials, representatives from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh as well as a dedication by Harry Schneider, 76, a retired Churchill businessman and co-chairman of the Holocaust Survivors' Association of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Schneider, who was born in Lomazy, a small village in eastern Poland, was 2 1/2 years old when the German army invaded. His family escaped into the woods, where they lived for two years before making it to Russia. In 1942, all the remaining Jews in Lomazy, nearly 1,700 in all and including many of Mr. Schneider's relatives, were massacred by SS troops, according to the Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team website.

Mr. Schneider and his wife, Patty, took in the sculpture Wednesday morning.

"It's beautiful," Mr. Schneider said. "In Pittsburgh, we needed something like this to remind people of the Holocaust."

After World War II, Mr. Schneider's family later settled in Washington, Pa.

"It's for everybody to know what happened so it doesn't happen again," he said. "We should remember."

Mrs. Munro, whose 92-year-old father, Moshe Baran, is also a Holocaust survivor, said the sculpture is intended to enable school groups and the public at large to grasp the scope of the Holocaust and serve as a monument not just to tragedy, but to vigilance, a way to "keep tabs on humanity."

"Nothing like this should be happening to human beings," she said.

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.

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