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Schoolkids Make Holocaust Memorial

April 23, 1998

MAHOMET, Ill. (AP) _ Thousands of miles and two generations removed from World War II Germany, two teachers searched for a way to help their seventh-grade students comprehend the horror of the Holocaust.

But how do you make real the deaths of 11 million people to children in a picturesque central Illinois town with only a handful of Jewish families and where most everyone else is white, Christian and middle class?

Social studies teachers Kevin Daugherty and Jane Fisk found the answer to that question _ in a soda can.

Students at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School collected 11 million pop tabs _ those aluminum rings used to open cans. The tabs were meant not exactly to represent the lives of the 6 million Jews and 5 million other victims of the Holocaust but to help students comprehend the massive numbers who died.

Now those pop tabs are being used by a New York artist to create ``Wings of Witness,″ a massive pair of wings that could span up to 70 feet. The sculpture, although incomplete, will be shown in public for the first time tonight in a ceremony at the junior high school.

``So many of us here are the same. Not totally the same, but just glancing at us, we look that same. That’s why it’s so interesting that it’s coming from this school, not a big school, not an inner-city school, just little Mahomet,″ said Michelle James, a 14-year-old student.

The project started in December 1996 as Daugherty was drinking a Diet Coke and racking his brain for a way to make the number 6 million relevant to his students. He thought about multiplying the number of students in the junior high _ about 600 _ by 100,000. But that still seemed too abstract.

Then Daugherty pulled the tab off his soda can _ and had an idea that would inspire this town of 3,800 located about 120 miles south of Chicago.

It was slow going at first.

But concentration camp survivor Eva Kor inspired the students when she visited to donate 119 pop tabs _ one for each of her family members killed in the Holocaust. Then a syndicated columnist wrote in more than 300 newspapers about the students’ mission.

Suddenly, tabs started pouring in at a rate of 200,000 per day, along with heartfelt letters cheering the students on. A woman who didn’t drink soda sent in tabs from her tuna fish cans and cat food; a nursing home collected the tabs off nutrition drinks.

The students also received hate mail from people who said the Holocaust never happened. That provided something else to discuss along with the Holocaust-related works they read and artwork they created.

When the students reached the 6 million goal in March 1997, they decided to collect 5 million more for the non-Jewish victims _ homosexuals, Slavs, Gypsies, other minorities and resistance fighters.

That number was reached in less than two months, and all the tabs were unveiled in a Holocaust memorial event on May 15.

``I was amazed. I had no idea it was that many. It made me think, how could people do that? How could they kill all those people just for their religious belief?″ said Kate Guth, 13.

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