In 1959, the butterfly took on new significance with the publication of a poem by Pavel Friedmann, a young Czech who wrote it while in the Terezin Concentration Camp and ultimately died in Auschwitz in 1944. In a few poignant lines, “The Butterfly” voiced the spirit of the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust.
In 1996, it inspired staff and supporters of Holocaust Museum Houston (HMH) to launch The Butterfly Project. HMH designed The Butterfly Project to connect a new generation of children to the children who perished in the Nazi era. Three educators designed activities and lesson plans to convey to students the enormity of the loss of innocent life.
The Butterfly Project had found a deep resonance, stirring creativity and compassion around the world. Students learned about the experiences of children during the Holocaust through the study of poems and artwork created by children imprisoned in the Czech town of Terezin. Maintained by the Nazis as a “model ghetto” and transfer point, it later came to be known as the German concentration camp Theresienstadt.
“Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”
Few children survived Theresienstadt or any other camp. To demonstrate this random and pervasive loss of life, teachers walked students through a special butterfly project. Students would receive the name of a child from the Holocaust era and then create a butterfly to commemorate that child and his or her life.
Filling the rooms with beauty and color, the butterflies were often suspended from the classroom ceiling. Over a period of time, seemingly at random, teachers would remove a butterfly to represent a child who had perished. Students would return to the classrooms day after day to see if “their” butterfly had survived or perished. Finding that their butterfly had disappeared, the students were shocked, saddened and frequently angry when they learned the fate of the child with whom they had come to identify.
Word of The Butterfly Project spread through the efforts of the Museum and by word of mouth from students and teachers. Students made butterflies of all sizes and dimensions from every available medium. They wrote poetry and letters and created newsletters and journals. They also wrote scripts for plays and videos in which they performed.
Butterflies began to arrive at the Museum from groups of all ages and descriptions as an outpouring of emotion and remembrance. Day care centers, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, businesses and corporations, individuals, hospitals, retirement communities, faith-based groups, anti-genocide groups, art clubs and sewing guilds all participated. A group of felt artists in Germany submitted beautiful felted butterflies along with this message: “We created these butterflies in response to the rise of antisemitism we see now in Europe.” Butterflies arrived from Africa, Asia, Australia, North America, South America and Europe as the project inspired people around the globe.
One butterfly even arrived from space. American Astronaut Rex Walheim participated in The Butterfly Project in July 2011 while aboard the final mission of Space Shuttle Atlantis. He created his butterfly in memory of the children who perished in the Holocaust and in honor of Israeli Astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died tragically with six other crew members during the re-entry of Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003.
Today, what started as a powerful lesson plan is now a rally cry and demonstration to continuously seek justice. It's a call to connect with opposing views and understand the larger narrative that hope and positive action will always prevail over hate.