Butterfly Project heeds call of Holocaust victims: 'Remember us'

Pavel Friedman was born in Prague in 1921. By the time he was 21, he was living in the Terezin Nazi concentration camp, 35 miles from his home.

He died in Auschwitz two years later.

It's difficult for most people to imagine the horrors of the Holocaust. World War II can be a distant memory even for those who lived it.

"For many, as they were led to their deaths, their last words were: 'Remember us,' " said Gwenna Cokley, an English teacher at Bethel Park High School.

Such is the lesson she and her colleagues in the 10th-grade English department have tried to impart to students during the past few weeks as they studied Jewish persecution during the Holocaust and its depiction through literature.

One of the most poignant exercises has been the Butterfly Project, in which 33 poems written by the young adult occupants of Terezin have been preserved in a book named for one of Mr. Friedman's poems: "I Never Saw Another Butterfly."

The final lines of the poem observe: "that butterfly was the last one. Butterflies don't live in here, in the ghetto."

"They had this literary underground magazine that was edited by a boy who died at Auschwitz at the age of 16," teacher Leigh Ann Totty said.

Her colleague, Nicola Hipkins, added that fewer than 100 of the 15,000 young adults who spent time at Terezin eventually survived the war, and daily images of pain and suffering were expressed through these teens' writings.

The Holocaust Museum in Houston, Texas, is curating an exhibit that involves collecting 1.5 million paper butterflies made by everyone from students and retirees to Girl Scout troops. According to Natalie Herzog, the museum's assistant director of education, these small artworks will be displayed en mass after they've been received and catalogued, probably in the spring of 2012.

At Bethel Park High School, sophomores were assigned a poem from a collection edited by Hana Volavkova. In late March, they created the butterflies -- which averaged around 8 inches across ---- and hung them with yarn from the lobby ceiling of Building 4, which houses the English department.

The butterflies were mostly construction paper projects, although a few chose to use elaborate folding techniques approaching origami. One boy covered his with gray duct tape, giving the butterfly an almost industrial feel. Another, green ink on yellow paper, quoted part of a poem: "I've met enough people, seldom a human being. … I must not lose faith. I must not lose hope."

Michael Shahen chose to create a digital image, a butterfly-shaped montage of photos downloaded and laminated on paper.

On Monday, each class gathered throughout the day for a ceremony that underscored the grim fate for most of the poets.

Painted on the glass window overlooking a courtyard were lines from Mr. Friedman's poem, next to a photograph of Prague's Old Town square in the country known then as Czechoslovakia.

As Ms. Cokley and Ms. Hipkins read parts of poems and the authors' names, students were asked to stand beneath their butterfly.

If the author lived, the butterfly stayed. If the author died, or his or her fate was unknown, the butterfly was cut down. By day's end, few remained.

Afterward, the students returned to their classrooms to complete short essays detailing their impressions of the project.

"We've gotten really good [feedback]; I think they're 'getting it,' " Ms. Hipkins said.

"I don't want to hear you picked pink and purple for your butterfly just because you like pink and purple," teacher Chris Jack said.

"They're looking at these poems a little more deeply."

Many of the students went about with business-as-usual attitudes during the ceremony, but Autumn Lowe wasn't among them.

As she went to cut down the butterfly -- the author, Eva Schulzova, was 12 when she died in Auschwitz -- Autumn teared up: "I'm sad, I'm a crier," she said.

Classmate Victoria Butler said that studying the poems and creating the artwork "make it more real, but I still think some people aren't grasping it."

"These are not just butterflies being cut down, they are the souls of children being cut down," Mr. Jack said, adding that "sometimes you have to redirect" students' attention when approaching such an overwhelming concept.

Mr. Jack said that one of the keys to studying the Holocaust has been making what must seem like ancient history more accessible. To that end, guest speaker Eric Blaustein, of Mt. Lebanon -- a Holocaust survivor -- spoke of his experiences during the war.

One of the other reading assignments was Art Spiegelman's "Maus," a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel that depicts the survival of the authors' parents. In it, the characters representing Jews are mice, Nazis are cats.

The Butterfly Project continues to grow.

"One-and-a-half million children perished during the Holocaust and we thought this would be a good way to learn about it," said Miss Herzog, who estimates the museum has received about 500,000 butterflies so far. Bethel Park will be sending around 400 to Texas.

"A lot of time, we'll receive butterflies [with comments attached]," Miss Herzog said. "They'll tell us how it changed the children, how meaningful the project was to them."

Maria Sciullo can be reached at msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867. First Published April 9, 2009 4:00 AM


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