While I was planning my unit over Night by Elie Wiesel, I wanted to find something that would make the students connect with individual survivors and victims. I came across The Butterfly Project, and I knew it would be the perfect way to not only connect, but to visually represent lives lost during the Holocaust.
The project comes from a book of children’s poetry and artwork from the Terezin ghetto called I Never Saw Another Butterfly. First I have to give them background information on Terezin because it’s not a widely known place in Holocaust history. I use this Terezin Background PowerPoint. I have the students pair up and read individual poems from the book. We talk about the ones that seem to have a hopeful tone, and those that are more about fear and uncertainty. Then, as we move through the unit, every day I read the information about a poet and artist that the students have seen in the book. In the back of the book, there is a record of the children that wrote each poem and created each piece of art. You can find out if that child survived if the researchers were able to discover that information (some are just labeled anonymous).
The survival rate of children from the Terezin ghetto was 10%. As you can see below, we started out with many butterflies as I had each 8th grader make one (there are 105). As I would read about the children each day, if the child did not survive, I would cut down a butterfly. The middle picture is the 10 that were left at the end of our unit. The students cheered and clapped when I read about a survivor and got very quiet when I would tell them that a child had perished. I could always feel their eyes on me as I cut down the butterflies for that class period. They would flinch if I cut theirs down and breathe a sigh of relief if their butterfly was safe for another day.
As an educator for over 20 years, this was probably the most connected that I felt the students were to a piece of literature. I am proud of the insightful connections they have made during discussion and the maturity they have shown during what can be a tough set of lessons. Many people my age are skeptical of the ability of this generation to be empathetic, but these kids should give you confidence that they will lead us well as they grow up and take the reins.
Here is a link to information about The Butterfly Project if you would like to find out more. The Butterfly Project from the Holocaust Museum of Houston