By Marsha Sutton
Senior Education Reporter
Butterflies are about to emerge at Del Mar Heights Elementary School where a months-long project to educate sixth-grade students about the Holocaust is under way.
Stories have been written before about the Butterfly Project begun at the San Diego Jewish Academy five years ago that honors and memorializes the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust.
But what’s unusual about this story is that the butterflies will soon alight at a Del Mar public elementary school, the first large public school installation locally.
Cheryl Price, SDJA Artist in Residence and Butterfly Project founder, said she is thrilled to have Del Mar Heights join the more than 200 butterfly memorials in cities nationwide. “It is very exciting to see what Del Mar Heights Elementary School is doing,” she said.
Price works with co-founder Jan Landau and project coordinator Rebeca Besquin to promote Holocaust education beyond the walls of Carmel Valley’s SDJA.
“At first we were keeping all the butterflies at SDJA,” Price said, noting that students at several other local schools have participated in the project and sent the ceramic butterflies to SDJA. “We changed gears three years ago to invite others to make their own memorials. It is a better way to educate, as the kids see the butterflies each day and remember.”
The ceramic butterflies are shaped from clay, and are then painted, glazed and mounted for display. The Del Mar Heights students’ butterflies will be displayed in the school’s Multi-Use Room.
Price’s goal is “to reach as many children, parents, teachers and Holocaust survivors as we possibly can over the next five years so we can meet our goal of 1.5 million butterflies displayed worldwide in multiple locations,” she said. “No small feat … and every butterfly counts.”
Inspired by the documentary “Paper Clips” and the poem “The Butterfly” written by a child during the Holocaust, the project is called “Zikaron V’tikvah” – Hebrew for remembrance and hope. The project asks participants to “remember the past, act responsibly in the present, and create a more peaceful future.”
Wendy Wardlow, principal of Del Mar Heights, said her students are being taught historical lessons about the millions of people who were killed in the Holocaust. “It’s hard to imagine the numbers. But each one was a precious person; each one was part of a family,” she said. “Butterflies are a sign of new life. By our lives, we can honor theirs.”
Resilient human spirit
Wardlow came upon the Butterfly Project after seeking a meaningful project for her 65 outgoing sixth-graders this year that would expand their horizons and provide them with a richer education beyond the subjects they learn in school. The purpose, she said, is not just to teach about one of the darkest chapters in modern human history, but also to help students understand the need for individuals to speak out against prejudice and injustice, promote tolerance and empathy, and defend democracy.
“I want our students to understand the power and the vulnerability of our democracy,” she said. “They should never take their freedom for granted.”
Wardlow also hopes to transmit lessons about resilience of the human spirit. “I also want them to understand there is hope and that they can overcome incomprehensible obstacles,” she said.
Wardlow said the teachers enthusiastically embraced the project, which began months ago with films and books and included a personal visit from local Holocaust survivor Ben Midler (see sidebar) who spoke to the children about his experiences in concentration camps during World War II and how he overcame bitterness and anger and learned to look to the future with joy.
Del Mar Heights sixth-grade student Elane Moon said the Holocaust speaker taught her that it’s important “not to give in to sadness.”
Wardlow said the impact of having Midler speak to the children was profound.
“I think the personal connection our students made when listening to a survivor describe such a horrific world event will remain with them into the future,” she said. “It’s critical we make connections with our students so they understand why it is important for them to learn about the events in our world history.”
“No one lesson will ever be enough for our young people to understand the suffering and ability for others to turn a blind eye, but it is a start,” Price said.
“The experience of hearing the survivor tell their story, standing with dignity and determination to speak for those who never had the chance to speak, is a life-changing milestone for those in the room.”
Price said students feel empowered to speak out against injustice after meeting Holocaust survivors, many of whom were their age when they were taken from their families by the Nazis and forced to suffer unimaginable atrocities.
“We are so grateful when we see people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds clutch at their hearts with compassion for the suffering that the survivor endured just for being who they were: a Jewish child born in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Price said.
Wardlow said all the children “get it,” as evidenced in the moving letters each child wrote to Ben Midler (see sidebar).
“And I think when they are older, they will reflect on what they learned and get it at an even deeper level,” she said. “These lessons will provide a base of understanding to guide them throughout their lives.”
Shaping America’s government
Price said the Butterfly Project has been an effective tool to begin teaching children about the Holocaust, because it connects the children to history through art.
“When we have an opportunity for a public school to bring the Butterfly Project and its many layers to their students, we are always moved by the genuine compassion that is generated,” Price said in an email.
One critical component of the project for both Price and Wardlow is the need for students to understand their role in shaping America’s government.
“We believe the students are learning that they are very lucky to be living in the U.S.A.,” Price said. “When, as at Del Mar Heights Elementary School, there is an education component such as watching the documentary ‘Paperclips’ and having long discussions about the gradual stripping away of legal rights and possessions and the idea of ‘superior’ races, the students are asked to consider how this could happen and what would they do if living in that time. A lot of soul-searching takes place.”
The Heights students have already made their clay butterflies, Wardlow said, and will be painting and glazing them in the next few weeks. To prepare, each student was given a brief biography of a Holocaust child, and each student’s butterfly is dedicated to that child.
“On the back of their butterflies, each student wrote the name of a child who was in the Holocaust,” she said. “On the front, they wrote words like ‘remember,’ ‘peace,’ ‘hope,’ ‘love.’”
Sherrie Antoun’s butterfly was dedicated to a girl who was 5 when she was killed by the Nazis. “We are learning that we take our lives for granted,” said the Heights sixth-grader.
Several students, during the painting of their butterflies under the supervision of Del Mar Heights art instructor Jacque Folgner, were impacted by the knowledge that Ben Midler was about their age when he was taken from his family and sent to Nazi concentration camps. They all agreed with sixth-grader Caitlin Puglisi when she said, “You can’t even imagine what he must have gone through.”
Caitlin said she is learning through the Butterfly Project “to act responsibly in the present and to not be prejudiced.”
“We are honored to be included in this project,” said Wardlow, who plans to make the Butterfly Project an annual sixth-grade event. “One of my goals as the principal of Del Mar Heights is for our students to be compassionate and to engage their hearts as well as their minds. While we focus on building their skills in reading, writing and mathematics, it is equally important for them to learn to think critically, to question authority, to be brave and use their voices for good.”
When students have a chance to express their emotions through art by making a ceramic butterfly that memorializes a child, Price said they show the world “that this living child today has a voice and won’t stand for injustice.”