The Last Butterfly: Remembering The Children of Holocaust

[Published in Asiaville, January 27, 2020]

In 2018, during a visit to the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York, I saw the building’s lobby filled with hand-made paper butterflies of different colors and shapes. At first, I thought it must have been part of a nature conservation project. But I was wrong. I discovered that the 14 panels that housed hundreds of these butterflies were made by children from six continents to commemorate the lives of 1.5 million children, who perished in the Holocaust [of which more than one million were Jewish children]. Each butterfly sought to remember a life lost. The exhibition, which was titled “The Butterfly Project,” was part of the UN’s observance (since 2005) of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th of every year.

This particular date marked the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in 1945, which were then located in German-occupied Poland. The remembrance day had two objectives. One, to commemorate the lives of over 6 million Jews, who were victims of the Nazi genocide and two, to create awareness and education about the Holocaust across the globe. The exhibition was part of this effort to remember and teach. While I stood there studying the hand-crafted butterflies in the lobby — both admiring their beauty and despairing of what occasioned it, what struck me was the contrast. The Holocaust, which remains a mass extermination event of millions, an enterprise seethed in cruelty, violence and apathy, could be remembered by something so fragile and hope-filled as a “butterfly.”

The Butterfly Project, an initiative of the Holocaust Museum Houston (HMH) began in 1996, as a school project in Houston to educate children on the aftermath of Holocaust. For more than twenty years, it continued in thousands of schools across the world — butterfly-making became part of class projects and curriculum, until the Project finally achieved its goal of 1.5 million butterflies. What inspired the project was a poem [“The Butterfly”] written by a 21-year old Czech poet Pavel Friedmann, who in 1942 was sent by Nazis to the Terezin Concentration Camp in erstwhile Czechoslovakia. Over 12,000 children and adolescents passed through the Terezin Camp from 1942–1944, of which more than 90 percent of the children died. Friedmann, meanwhile, wrote on June 4, 1942:

“For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live here,
in the ghetto.”

Later, Friedmann was deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered by the Nazis. Like in this verse, what was revealed in the writings (from retrieved diaries) of children like Anne Frank and Petr Ginz were mirrors not only into the brutality of the Nazi regime but also their individual dreams and aspirations about a future they wanted to see. This experience of the Holocaust, one filled with longing and curiosity about the future, is unique and cannot be commingled with the reminisces and memories of an adult.

The earliest targets of the Nazis were German children with physical and mental disabilities, along with children of minority groups such as Roma and Sinti. The anti-Semitic legislations, first in Germany and later in other German-occupied territories targeted Jewish children, who were expelled from State-sponsored schools. Their plight intensified during the Second World War, when they were sent to “killing centers” and forced to live in ghettos and camps, where they died of starvation and diseases. What is extraordinary to realize, and humbling to learn, is that amidst this atmosphere of unmitigated hardships, many children persisted with efforts to record their hope and resistance. For instance, children’s artworks retrieved from the Terezin Camp (later called Theresienstadt) are testimony to this. Theresienstadt served as a concentration camp and ghetto from 1941 to 1945. Both elderly and children who belonged to Czech, Austrian and German Jewish communities were imprisoned here. As a mark of resistance against the Nazi collaborators, the prisoners taught art and literature to the young children. Over the course of two years, the children in Theresienstadt created over 5,000 drawings and collages, of which 4,000 survived. It is this spirit that The Butterfly Project seeks to memorialize, many decades later — where trauma is transformed into hope. At the UN exhibition site, alongside the butterflies, there was a ‘virtual wish center,’ which read “make a wish for the humanity.” I stood there silently, unable to make up my mind on what I must ask for.

“The holocaust extends our knowledge of the human hell,” writes scholar Eva Hoffman whose parents survived the Holocaust. She argues that the collective loss born from those singular circumstances has “altered our vision of history and human nature itself.” In moments like these, an effort like The Butterfly Project presents an alternative vision — of re-imagining a world with compassion and respect for human dignity, justice and empathy. For this reason, the significance of this Project extends beyond the scope of a certain historic event. Children continue to be the targets of violence in armed conflicts across the globe. According to UN estimates, 2018 was the worst year for children, with over 12,000 children being killed or maimed in 20 conflict-ridden countries.

The author Lewis Hyde makes a striking etymological distinction when he defines the term “forget.” The German root word is ‘for’ and ‘getan’ which means to “let go,” while the Greek root word is ‘lethe’ which means to “erase and hide.” The Butterfly Project offers us a reminder that through some acts of remembering such as this exhibit, we can let go of the hate, while at the same time refuse to erase the sense of loss. This, I have slowly come to realize, is how we can learn to avoid repeating the tragedies of the past. []

Development practitioner & writer | Former policy consultant & researcher with United Nations | I work in migration, gender policy & technology for development.

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