Bill Walter knew the number 6 million, as in the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, could seem unfathomable.
So the Community Day School eighth-grade history teacher decided to show his students what 6 million looks like.
He wanted them to do the counting.
That was 16 years ago. Since then, CDS students, along with their families, their friends and the community at large, have been collecting, counting, and inserting 6 million pop tabs, one at a time, into glass blocks, the end result of which would be a memorial sculpture on the grounds of the school.
That project is now becoming a reality.
On Thursday, April 19, at 10 a.m., in observance of Yom Hashoa: Holocaust Remembrance Day, CDS will host a groundbreaking ceremony for the art installation, which is called “Keeping Tabs: A Holocaust Sculpture.”
“I’m pretty excited about it,” said Walter, who has taught at CDS for 23 years, and who is about to retire.
He first got the idea to collect the pop tabs from a colleague who had heard about a similar project near Chicago. “I thought it would be a really good way to have the students visualize [the number of Jewish lives lost],” he said.
During the first month of the project, Walter’s class collected 25,000 tabs. He thought they were off to a great start, until he did the math and realized that at that rate, it would take him 21 years to collect 6 million.
That’s when he knew he would need to expand the project beyond the walls of CDS.
Soon after spreading the word, Walter began receiving tabs from surrounding school districts, including Swissvale (which sent him 100,000 tabs), Norwin and Hempfield. After an item about his pop tab project appeared in the newsletter of Westminster College, Walter began getting letters and tabs from around the world.
He even got tabs from his own neighbors, who would put them out in butter dishes on recycle days. Walter would collect the tabs every other Monday at 4 a.m., before the recycling truck arrived.
“I never met any of those neighbors,” he said. “That really meant a lot to me.”
And, of course, Walter said, he received an enormous amount of tabs from Squirrel Hill, “from people I didn’t even know.”
The results Walter was after — a tangible display of the immensity of the number 6 million — was not lost on his students.
“It was rewarding to me,” he said. “The kids would count the tabs, and sometimes, they would look at them and say, ‘Every one of them represents one person.’ It was an eye opener.”
Walter kept the tabs in about 140 glass fish tanks in his classroom for years.
“Once we had the pop tabs, his classroom was filled with them, floor to ceiling,” recalled Head of School Avi Baran Munro. “We said, ‘We just can’t keep them in this room.’”
In 2002, the administration received funding to employ artist-in-residence Elena Hiatt Houlihan, from the Pennsylvania Arts Council, to work with the students in designing a public sculpture, which would use those tabs to serve as a lasting memorial to the 6 million. They were assisted by local architect Alan M. Dunn.
“The only stipulation Mr. Walter wished for was that he didn’t want [the tabs] melted down,” said Baran Munro. “He wanted them distinct and visible.”
The sculpture will be constructed of 960 glass blocks filled with a total of 6 million pop tabs. Upon its estimated completion in the spring of 2013, the artwork will stand 7 to 9 feet high and span 45 feet, creating a segmented Star of David.
“This project will connect alumni to the school for years to come, because so many generations of alumni had a part in it, and they are eager to see it built,” said Baran Munro.
She hopes the sculpture will serve as an interfaith, multicultural focal point for a “Keeping Tabs on Humanity” lecture series, and for community gatherings, as well as for individual moments of reflection.
Eighth-grade CDS students will be trained as docents, and will lead tours of the sculpture, as well as create new written materials that are meaningful to them on an annual basis, she said.
The groundbreaking program will include a student-led ceremony, and remarks by Baran Munro, Walter and Moshe Baran, president of the Pittsburgh Holocaust Survivors’ Association. The 30-minute event will be held in the upper parking lot at CDS, located at the corner of Forward Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)