By Mimi Pollack
There is something special about an artist who finds an expressive way to teach both children and adults about a moment in history that should never be forgotten, especially light of the recent synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.
That artist is Cheryl Rattner-Price, who co-founded The Butterfly Project with educator Jan Landau in 2006. The project — known as Zikaron V’ Tikvah in Hebrew — is a nonprofit organization that uses art and education to remind and teach others, especially students, about Holocaust remembrance and the horrible tragedy that hatred and intolerance produced. This can lead to healing discussions about anti-Semitism, racism, and bullying — all important messages in today’s environment.
For me, it is also personal. My mother’s best friend when I was a child was a Hungarian woman with a number tattooed on her arm that I could not understand. In addition, my mother grew up in the Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh, where Saturday’s synagogue shooting took place. Perhaps by teaching children and teens, The Butterfly Project can bring about more understanding and less hatred.
For Rattner-Price, an artist who came to San Diego from the East Coast in 1998, The Butterfly project is now her life’s work. While living in New Jersey and New York, she had her own business and later opened up a studio where she created ceramics, tiles and mosaics.
Although she was successful, it had been her dream since she was 15 to move out West. She arrived in San Diego in March 1998 with her husband and one-year old-daughter, and opened a studio in Del Mar.
She became involved with the San Diego Jewish Academy, and was asked to be the artist in residence. She helped the academy to create a very large, free-standing menorah on the campus that represented the seven values of the school. It was art with a message. She then teamed up with Landau, the academy’s former principal, and The Butterfly Project was born.
The nonprofit seeks to memorialize the children who perished in the Holocaust by painting 1.5 million ceramic butterflies. Students of all ages can participate, but the lesson seems to resonate particularly strongly with those of middle-school age.
This message is reinforced by having actual survivors or children of survivors come and talk. For example, Sonia Fox-Ohlbaum, a member of of the project’s education team, often shows off the concentration-camp clothing that her father wore. It is a way of making the abstract more concrete.
There is also something symbolic about a ceramic butterfly going through fire and being reborn. This is the kind of experience that stays with you. There are now beautiful butterfly installations in many locations, including San Diego Jewish Academy and local schools and synagogues.
Rattner-Price and Landau have visited classrooms in many parts of the United States and around the world, including Canada, Mexico, Israel, Australia, France, Tanzania, Cuba, Morocco and Poland. They want to permanently display the painted butterflies as symbols of resilience and hope in as many places as possible.
The Butterfly Project was partly inspired by “The Paper Clips Project,” in which students in Whitwell, TN, collected over six million paper clips to represent and honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Another inspiration was the haunting poem “The Butterfly” written by Pavel Friedmann while he was in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. The last line of the poem is: “Butterflies don’t live here in the ghetto.” Friedmann died on April 6, 1942.
The Butterfly Project has grown and now includes three members on the art staff headed by Rattner-Price, four members on the education team headed by Landau, and eight members of the Board of Directors. Together they have made The Butterfly Project more successful in getting an important message out.
The project now has an award-winning documentary about their work titled “Not the Last Butterfly.” This powerful film is another way of reaching out to the world. They also have butterfly kits available to the public for $180, and discounted kits exclusively for teachers and schools for $72.
These kits include:
- 36 ceramic butterflies for painting or glazing
- Glazes in various colors (acrylic paints are available for those who do not have access to a kiln to fire glazed butterflies)
- 36 unique bio cards that tell the story of an individual child who died in the Holocaust
The Butterfly Project is an important lesson of tolerance, especially for those under 25 who might not know much about this horrific event and its place in history.
Mimi Pollack is an English as a Second Language teacher and a freelance writer.