Butterfly Project teaches about compassion, kindness

August 8, 2018

Thinking about the Holocaust can be difficult for adults let alone children, but The Butterfly Project educators from the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh are teaching kids important lessons about compassion and kindness.

During a program last week at Northern Tier Library, participants received a card telling the story of a child who died in the Holocaust then had the opportunity to paint a ceramic butterfly as a symbol of resilience and hope.

Teaching children about what happened in an age-appropriate way is something that Holocaust Center director Lauren Apter Bairnsfather said they take very seriously and something they’ve had to think a lot about.

“This project pushed us to think more broadly about what we can do with Holocaust education without talking about specifics,” she said. “Most of our participants are too young for that type of presentation. We’ve had 4-year-olds engage in conversation but what we talk about are things like what makes us the same, what makes us different and how we need to see past those differences. We really have a message of kindness and peace that we’re sharing with the kids.”

The Butterfly Project was founded in 2006 by educators and artists at the San Diego Jewish Academy as a new way of teaching about the Holocaust while encouraging children to make the world a better place. It was inspired by the book “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a collection of art and poetry created by children imprisoned and killed in the Terezin/Theresienstadt concentration camp. The goal is to eventually paint 1.5 million butterflies, one for each child killed in the Holocaust.

The project started in Pittsburgh in 2016 as an event with survivors and their families, then last year the Holocaust Center expanded the program to schools and organizations in the area, painting more than 800 butterflies. This summer they’re traveling to libraries, and Bairnsfather said they’ve drawn diverse crowds with children of all ages.

Bairnsfather said they tailor the presentations depending on the ages of the children involved.

“We have several versions, so if the kids are in middle school or older we can have a more in-depth conversation about Holocaust history,” she said. “We can talk about the ghettos and concentration camps, and how the children imprisoned in Terezin created art and were part of a children’s opera there. There’s really a lot we can talk about with slightly older kids. With younger kids we look at images of butterflies and talk about how are they the same and how are they different. And the kids get it, they understand that there’s more about all people that’s the same than there is that’s different. There’s a real humanitarian message in the this project.”

An end-of-summer celebration will bring together all those who participated in the project, and the public is invited to a free screening of a documentary about the project on Aug. 25 at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, located at 826 Hazelwood Ave. in Greenfield. For more information, visit the website at http://hcofpgh.org/events/.

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