In a storeroom at the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, there’s a garden where it’s perpetual spring. Boxes brim with bright, cheerful blossoms - buttons, many of them vintage, others manufactured more recently, all precious. One and a half million of them fill every available corner of space. Each one was carefully collected and counted by the children of Moriah School in Wellington over a two-year period, and each represents the loss of a child during the Holocaust. When understood as a whole, the project conveys a powerful, poignant and disturbing message: one of loss that is simply unfathomable.
By reaching into the past to embrace those who were lost, the children of the present wanted to ensure the persistence of memory. “We wanted to make sure they were not forgotten,” Liza, a 13-year-old Moriah pupil explained during an interview with the education department, in 2012.
After their long-term goal was publicised, buttons steadily arrived from all over the globe, many accompanied by poignant stories of the disappeared - children hidden away, a brother lost, parents sent to camps, a baby who vanished amidst chaos.
Among the project's strongest supporters were the New Zealand Children's Holocaust Memorial's British patron Sir Nicholas Winton, a legend in his own time, who saved the lives of 669 Jewish children by organising their evacuation in trains from Czechoslovakia to the United Kingdom during the summer of 1939, and the prolific New Zealand author of children’s literature Joy Cowley, OBE.
Former Moriah School principal Justine Hitchcock, who managed the Button Project Committee, said the achievement of such a huge goal was a significant feat for her pupils, and a bold step towards what will eventually become a permanent Children’s Holocaust Memorial in Wellington, when a suitable location has been determined.
Hitchcock said she hoped the whole nation would treasure the memorial: “We want it to be one that everyone can visit. It’s important for people to remember the child victims of the Holocaust so that nothing similar can ever happen again.”
After collecting their buttons, Moriah’s children went on to complete the design, which they envisioned as an interactive sculpture. Called Bewilderment, they imagined it as a stark concrete cube, encasing a maze to explore and experience. The interior walls will be clear, and filled with buttons. Local artists will be invited to contribute designs for a single, candle-shaped light burning in the centre.
The sculpture will also feature a simple plaque quoting Wellington based Holocaust survivor Vera Egermayer, who inspired the design during a visit with the children: “In a time like the Holocaust it is like living in a pitch black room, but every time someone does something nice for you, it’s like them coming in the room and lighting a candle. You need to focus on the light,” she said.
To view the project's website, click here
Justine Hitchcock, former principal of Moriah College, who initiated the Button Project, spoke about it at the UN Holocaust Remeberance Day reception. She described how the project evolved in her small Jewish school, the enthusiastic participation of the children and the great education benefits they gained from it. The children themselves managed the project and designed the memorial that is to house the buttons, a reminder of the million and a half children murdered during the Holocaust.
Award-winning writer Joy Cowley, OBE, patron of the NZ Children's Holocaust Memorial visited the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand in March 2014 for an afternoon tea with the children that took part in the Button Project and suporters of the project.