Some butterflies sported brightly colored stripes. Others seemed more delicate, painted with muted hues. Still others were imprinted with hamsas or stars of David.
Each one was a unique work of art, but more importantly, a remembrance of a child who perished under the Nazi regime.
Teacher Lisa Sharfstein’s seventh-grade class at Beth El Congregation’s Spiegel Religious School, which has spent the last several months learning about the Holocaust, wanted to do something special to commemorate Yom Hashoa, which falls on April 21. The class wanted to do an art project that lent meaning to this tragic chapter of Jewish history.
So they made butterflies.
Sharfstein, after doing some research, came up with Zikaron V’Tikvah (Remembrance and Hope), a project sponsored by the San Diego Jewish Academy, a day school for students in grades kindergarten through 12.
The project, begun in 2006, was inspired by the film “Paper Clips,” a documentary about a school in rural Tennessee that has collected millions of paper clips in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Similarly, the San Diego Jewish Academy decided to try to collect 1.5 million ceramic butterflies to serve as a visual representation of the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust, and to remember the survivors,
Schools and other groups all over the world participate in the project by painting the butterflies, and sending them to San Diego for display on a wall of the academy. A special section of the wall is devoted to butterflies painted by more than 100 survivors.
“Most of the kids take this very seriously,” said Sharfstein last Sunday morning as she watched her students paint.
Previously, Sharfstein read her children the poem “The Butterfly,” written by Pavel Friedman, who died in Auschwitz in 1944, for inspiration before they began their project. Hearing the poem helped the class find meaning and symbolism in the butterflies.
“Butterflies are beautiful creatures, and the kids in the Holocaust never really had a chance to live, said student Max Tumpson. “The butterflies symbolize hope, in a sense.”
“The kids never got to live normal lives,” said another classmate, Rachel Reibach, “so they need to be remembered. And we need to appreciate what we have.”
Sharfstein’s class will send 18 butterflies to the San Diego Jewish Academy, which encourages participants to make their own clay butterflies from scratch. It also sells kits with butterflies that are ready to paint. Sharfstein purchased the kits with the help of a donation from a parent. Color Me Mine, on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill, is donating the cost of the glazing and firing.
The San Diego Jewish Academy has collected more than 13,500 butterflies so far, according to Cheryl Price, the artist in residence at the Academy who heads up the project. Butterflies have come from Mexico City, Jerusalem, Paris, the Czech Republic and Tanzania, as well as many cities throughout the United States.
Groups participating in the project may create their own installation in their own community, Price said, as well as contribute to the wall in San Diego.
Sharfstein’s seventh-graders, while having a good time painting, also recognized the greater significance in what they were doing.
“The butterflies symbolize freedom,” said student Allison Kline, “and the children who died going up to the heavens.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)