For 11 years, Carmel Valley artist Cheryl Rattner Price has been sharing a glimpse of hope, a lesson for life and giving voice back to the anonymous child through The Butterfly Project, an effort to create 1.5 million ceramic, painted butterflies to represent the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust. Now a film documenting the project’s inspiring mission is taking flight.
“Not the Last Butterfly” will be screened at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, Feb. 12 at 10:30 a.m. at Edwards San Marcos Stadium 18 and at 1:30 p.m. at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla. Each screening will include the opportunity after the film to paint a butterfly that will be featured in an art installation at Jewish Family Service’s Joan & Irwin Jacobs Campus.
Student tickets for the film are free courtesy of the Lipinksy Family Foundation.
Rattner Price co-directed and co-executive produced the documentary with Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker Joe Fab.
Rattner Price and Jan Landau started The Butterfly Project in 2006 at the San Diego Jewish Academy. Landau had been inspired by the Holocaust poem “The Butterfly.” After the war, the butterfly became a symbol of hope for survivors, that there can be renewed life, there can be a transformation.
Landau had also been inspired by a documentary film called “Paper Clips,” about a Holocaust memorial created in Tennessee where students committed to collecting one paper clip for each of the six million people who perished during the Holocaust, writing letters to ask for paper clips and getting an entire community involved. They ended up receiving paper clips from all over the world, filling a rail car with 11 million paperclips representing the six million Jews and 5 million gypsies, homosexuals and other victims of the Holocaust. The car stands as a permanent memorial in their schoolyard.
Rattner Price, a ceramics artist, was SDJA’s artist-in-residence at the time when Landau approached her about doing the project. The lesson of The Butterfly Project is not scary and doesn’t shut kids down in the “awful” way that Rattner Price said her generation was taught about the Holocaust. The project created a way to teach children about the history of the past in a way that let’s them feel hope.
“I fell in love with the process of helping other people to learn about this topic and expressing something personal,” Rattner Price said. “You’re breaking children’s hearts when you share this story with them, they feel powerless and sad. The idea is to make a butterfly and join with others who have learned that through their voice they can make a difference and stand up when somebody else is being hurtful.
“It makes us so motivated. It’s so important. We need to help our young generation to know everything they can about history and learn when we come together around a common idea we can not only honor and tribute but change lives.”
Rattner Price calls herself an “obsessive photographer” and since 2006 has documented every step of The Butterfly Project through photos and video — from the installation at SDJA using boxes of ceramic butterflies received from all over the country and world, how they have spread the project to schoolchildren throughout the country and beyond, overseeing art installations in other communities.
“All of these cities did amazing, gorgeous installations and I felt responsible to share those stories. As a mosaic artist, I collect bits and pieces and keep everything and that’s how I started making this film,” Rattner Price said, noting one particularly moving experience filming butterflies installed at a school in Warsaw, Poland. “As an artist I got in way over my head, not realizing how difficult it is to make a documentary film.”
She had over 200 hours of footage when she connected with Joe Fab, the producer, director and writer of “Paper Clips,” which had inspired the whole project. Once Fab came on board, Rattner Price’s documentary tightened up and took shape — it was no longer a scattered mosaic.
For the film, they were able to use the story of 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger. While in the Terezin Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic, Weissberger remembered a teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandies, who inspired the children to express their pain and deal with the shock and trauma of the camp through secret art projects.
Weissberger not only placed a butterfly on the wall at SDJA but the filmmakers were able to take her back to Terezin, where she left a butterfly in memory of her teacher, who helped thousands of children at Terezin before being murdered at Auschwitz.
The film was an official selection of the 2016 Virginia Film Festival in November and, in January, the film was shown at a private screening at the U.S. Embassy in Latvia and a screening at the JCC Manhattan. The film is scheduled to be shown this year at the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival, a special screening at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Kansas. They have also submitted to festivals as far away as Hong Kong and Australia.
The Butterfly Project carries on, with the goal to reach more than 60 local schools a year, with an educational team that includes Landau and retired teachers, many of whom have family members who were Holocaust survivors.
They will continue to teach this impactful lesson, not only to reach 1.5 precious butterflies made but to transform resistance through art and education and empower people to take action against injustice. As one student says in the film: “I learned that if I don’t do anything, then nothing will change.”
“The beauty of this for me as an artist, I feel like I’m continuing Friedl’s legacy,” Rattner Price said. “She wanted to help the children by doing art to help them handle that trauma and have hope for the future.
“I’m very lucky. It’s amazing how it has all come together and it’s really exciting what is happening.”
Tickets for the film can be purchased at sdjff.org. For more on The Butterfly Project, visit thebutterflyprojectnow.org