Magazine Feature

Wings of Witness

A 7th grade Holocaust history project evolves into a memorial sculpture.

It started with a "pop." Kevin Daugherty, a 7th grade social studies teacher in the small Illinois community of Mahomet, had been pondering how best to build on his textbook's meager mention of the Holocaust.

At Mahomet Seymour Junior High School, whose 625-member student body included only three Jewish students, Daugherty and his colleagues felt an urgent need to address the magnitude of the Nazis' extermination campaign against the Jews. While driving to work one day, Daugherty popped the tab on his Diet Coke and experienced a small revelation.

What if his students could collect enough tabs to represent the six million Jewish lives sacrificed in the death camps? It was a long shot, Daugherty realized, but even a portion of that number could help them get an imaginative grasp of the Holocaust's scale.

Daugherty's colleague Jane Fisk liked the idea and helped him launch the tab drive. Within a few months, the collection campaign had taken on a life of its own. National media attention and a notice on the Internet brought box after box of aluminum rings through the mail -- eventually from all 50 states and eight foreign countries. Thousands soon became millions. After meeting the original goal of six million tabs, the collectors pressed on until they reached 11 million, representing the full death toll, including 5 million political dissenters, Roma (Gypsies), pacifists, disabled persons, homosexuals and others murdered by the Nazis.

In May 1997, the pop-tab collection was unveiled in a ceremony at the high school gymnasium. As 2,000 people -- including local officials, a Holocaust survivor and national media -- looked on, the 7th graders poured bag after bag of tabs onto the gym floor. They planned to recycle the collection after the program.

Fisk says she and Daugherty intended for the tabs to represent the sheer number of Holocaust victims. The enormity of the collection, she says, transforms the commonplace quality of the tabs themselves.

Robert Silverman, director of the Jewish Federation in nearby Champaign, agrees. "The pop tabs became the medium for the work," he says, "just as paint is a medium, words are a medium, music is a medium. It could have been pencils, paper clips, little pebbles. The pop tabs are the clay." In Silverman's view, the tabs became "windows" offering young people a new perspective on a tragedy of staggering proportions. After attending the unveiling ceremony, Silverman made it his personal mission to save the tabs from recycling.

The project also caught the attention of a New York artist. When Jeffrey Schrier heard about the Mahomet undertaking during a speaking engagement, he, too, found a similar power in its use of a humble, unexpected symbol.

"Because [the tabs] had been collected to represent the innocent victims, they were a material that was endowed with a very powerful, yet tragic, meaning," Schrier says. "I was tremendously excited about taking the work these students had done and making it into some sort of permanent form as a way of memorializing the number of lost lives."

Nearly 8,000 students in eight states have helped Schrier turn some 1.2 million of the tabs into "Wings of Witness." From an early design as feathery eagle wings, the sculpture evolved to its present form after Schrier was inspired by the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly (Schocken Books, 212-751-2600), a collection of poetry and drawings by children held in a Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, Czechoslovakia, during World War II.

The message of 'never forget' and 'never again' is not just a Jewish message—it's a message for all humanity.

"Shaping the tabs into butterfly wings," Schrier said, "seemed like an ideal way to connect our sculpture to those works of art, which were also created by young people."

The memorial sculpture has been on display as a work-in-progress at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, Ga. Students in Mahomet also viewed the sculpture at a special ceremony at their school in April 1998, marking Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).

Each "feather" for "Wings of Witness" comprises 600 to 700 pop tabs strung carefully by young hands on a length of wire, which is then bent and strung over a long metal rod. Students learn how to make the feathers during workshops that Schrier conducts at their schools.

In addition to the pop-tab collection, Daugherty and Fisk had their students create a Holocaust mini-museum, a collection of hands-on projects about World War II. Students also designed squares for a quilt that was displayed at a Holocaust museum in Terre Haute, Ind.

Michelle James, one of the student coordinators of the pop-tab project, said that participating in the creation of such a powerful memorial left a lasting impression on her life.

"I realize now how much we can make a difference in small things," Michelle told her local newspaper. "This started out as such a small project, and things just kept pouring out. … It taught me a lot about tolerance and not being so judgmental toward other people," she said. "The Holocaust was something we needed to talk about and get out so it doesn't happen again."

"The fact that a low-diversity community created the project made it even more powerful," adds Robert Silverman. "The message of 'never forget' and 'never again' is not just a Jewish message—it's a message for all humanity."

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