Noticing a sixth-grade boy crying during a lesson on the Holocaust, a Butterfly Project educator once asked his teachers about him.
The history session opened the boy’s eyes to the ramifications of his own antisemitic activities at the school and his disbelief in the Holocaust, recalled Arlene Keeyes on Friday.
“He was just pretty, pretty shook up that he had done this,” said Keeyes, a staff member with The Butterfly Project, a 16-year-old San Diego-based charity that raises awareness about the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis during World War II.
She said the boy was remorseful to “find out that these are real people, and these horrible experiences happened to real people.”
Also Friday, about 65 motorcyclists with Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance traveled to La Jolla’s Congregation Beth El for its Ride 2 Remember 2022, some traveling more than 5,000 miles across the country and Canada. They supported The Butterfly Project’s fundraising efforts.
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The money — about $20,000 so far — will go to educating students in San Diego schools.
The project teaches social justice through lessons of the Holocaust. Participants are taught the dangers of hatred and bigotry, encouraging empathy and social responsibility through education, the arts and memorial-making.
Each year since 2006, the motorcycle alliance — with 38 clubs and about 2,400 members in the U.S., Canada, Israel, England and Canada — focuses on a Holocaust education organization.
Lauren Secular, treasurer with the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance, said the group’s beginnings was a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the nation’s capital by riders from Florida, New York, New Jersey, Toronto and Washington, D.C.
And they’ve been riding to raise money ever since, only pausing for the pandemic one year.
People love motorcycles, Secular said, so “it’s a good vehicle, so to speak, to do that.”
Fundraising is ongoing at two websites — Ride to Remember and The Butterfly Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Educators have many stories about their visits to schools. Keeyes also recalls going to a school with a large Arabic population.
Initially a little apprehensive about the students’ possible reaction, she was astonished by the response.
“You know, the lessons that we teach are our universal lessons,” Keeyes said. “And I think that the kind of the reward that we got at the end is that a couple of the Arabic girls came up to us at the end and thanked us and hugged us for teaching the lessons of the Holocaust.
“They didn’t know,” she added. “But they were so appreciative that we were there.”
Symbols of Resilience, Hope
Painting ceramic butterflies displayed as symbols of resilience and hope, participants in The Butterfly Project remember the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust. About 300,000 butterflies have been crafted worldwide.
Jonathan Shulman, who works with the project, said he took the project with him to Panama for a Model United Nations Conference and got Panama and El Salvador involved.
The project is mostly aimed at children in fifth grade and beyond, but it is modified for younger pupils.
For younger children, talking about bullying is a way to tackle the subject of intolerance.
“You know how bullying can become words and words become actions,” said Judi Gottschalk, one of the project’s educators.
“My parents were both survivors of Auschwitz, and I feel I cannot live my life without paying this forward — without telling the world it’s my obligation to do this,” Gottschalk said. “My parents are like standing on my shoulder.”
Students design a unique butterfly and are given a biographical card, telling about one child who perished during the Holocaust. So the pupil has one person to connect with during the art project, said Shulman, who teaches at La Jolla Country Day School.
Shulman, director of the Center for Excellence in citizenship at the La Jolla school, added: “Our focus is very much on the idea that we want to teach students that they have rights, and to know their rights — but that in order to maintain those rights, they have a lot of responsibilities too, not just the rights.”
Among those responsibilities as a citizen, he said, is to vote, take part in their communities and protect others, especially the voiceless.
Being an ‘Upstander’
Jan Landau, co-founder of the project with Cheryl Rattner Price, said while Holocaust awareness — what we can learn from that horrific time in history — is a key part of their program, so is being an “upstander.”
“We’re trying to get across to the kids that you have to speak up, when someone is being treated poorly, when there’s injustice,” Landau said. “It’s our responsibility to stand up for those people. That’s the goal of it.”
They also strive to teach tolerance and empathy — “it means everything to me that we’re able to help kids to understand, to choose to be kind. That’s the message: Just choose to be kind. That’s all we’re asking.”
Earlier Landau spoke to the gathering of motorcyclists, members of The Butterfly Project, Congregation Beth El and Holocaust survivors among others about a 2020 survey of millennials and Generation Z populations nationwide aged 18 to 39.
“The findings raise concern not just about Holocaust ignorance, but also about Holocaust denial,” Landau said.
Sixty-three percent of those surveyed didn’t know 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. One out of 10 respondents didn’t recall ever hearing the word Holocaust. Nearly half could not come up with the name of a concentration camp. And, most disturbing: 11% believe that Jews caused the Holocaust.
“Now more than ever, students of all backgrounds need to be educated about the lessons of the Holocaust, and the sooner the better due to the rise of antisemitic acts worldwide,” Landau told the indoor gathering on a rainy day.
San Diego’s Rose Schindler, 92, spoke after the program about her four months in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“Oh my God, nobody can imagine what we went through,” she said. “Nobody can even explain it. That’s how horrible it was.”
She as 14 when the Nazis took her, although she told them she was 18. “That’s how I ended up at Auschwitz,” she said. Otherwise, I would have been in the gas chamber with my mother and four sisters and brother.”
“And every time they would come to take people to go to factories to work, they will always put me in the gas chamber line. And I would run out. You had to have brains and stuff like that. So that’s how I survived,” she said speaking of living in one of 30 barracks with 1,000 women each.
Beginning the Friday program at the synagogue, Rabbi Ron Shulman shared statistics on the increase in anti-Jewish incidents.
So far this year, 1,363 reported acts of antisemitism in the United States have been committed.
Calling the number “upsetting,” Rabbi Shulman said, “But you would agree with me that none of these kinds of statistics make us afraid. They always make us aware. And I learned this attitude from the many Holocaust survivors I have been privileged to know.
“Their lives and their legacies urge us — it is absolutely crucial that we remember and that we teach. It is critical that we protect and defend.”
But he added it also was vital that conversations within the Jewish community be about more than hate, and defense and security.
“We must speak together and to others about dignity and goodness,” Shulman told the crowd. “Goodness is a choice that we must make constantly and repeatedly and consciously from moment to moment so that we indeed forge a better world.”
Making History Alive
This coming week, students in a Making History Alive project at La Jolla County Day School will go to Germany where high school students will interact with German peers. It’s the second year of the project.
Said 15-year-old Shane Montal, one of the trip participants: “I think it really means connecting with my culture and just being there and experiencing, like such a place that’s so important to history.”
Ami Parish, an educator at the school, said: “It’s been just so fruitful to see young people becoming so inspired and so knowledgeable and wanting to spread that information further.”
Manya Wallenfels, 84, was one of about five Holocaust survivors at the event.
She told Times of San Diego that her family was the only one to survive in a small Polish city, Busk, which previously had about 2,000 Jews. She spent 1 1/2 years in a ghetto and then 18 months hiding in a forest before her was able to escape.
Asked about the motorcyclists donating money to the Butterfly Project, Wallenfels said: “That was a great. … It is very, very important that people know about what happened during the Holocaust. So many people today don’t know antisemitism is coming along very fast.”
“We want to stop that because to kill people without any reason — that is very wrong,” she continued. “So we must talk about the Holocaust, that such a thing should never ever happen again, no matter what your color skin or what your religious beliefs are.
“We are all equal, and we have to strive to have a peaceful world.”