What started as a lesson plan more than 20 years ago, imagined by three Houston-area educators as a way to teach children about the Holocaust, has mushroomed into a worldwide phenomenon. The program calls for students to read poems and look at pictures made by children in the Terezín concentration camp – generally the last stop before Auschwitz – and then think about those children and make butterflies that are put on display. At the end of the book, when the students learn that most of those young authors and artists perished, 90 percent of the butterflies are cut down in a dramatic demonstration of the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.
It is estimated that 1.5 million children died between 1942 and 1944. Since “The Butterfly Project” began in 1995, even before Holocaust Museum Houston officially opened its doors, children and adults from every continent except Antarctica have contributed to the shared goal of making 1.5 million butterflies. Selections from this collection are on view at Holocaust Museum Houston in "Taking Flight: The Butterfly Project," curated by local artist and photographer Syd Moen.
“They've been collecting butterflies for 20 years. That's incredible. It's overwhelming. You have no idea. There's three storage units,” says Moen. “Then it just sort of snowballed. It's just an exceptional project or a way to teach children about the Holocaust. [In the lesson plan], once the butterflies were done, the teacher would hang the butterflies from the ceiling and display them, and then at the very end of this book, they tell what happened to the children.
“[Pavel Friedmann] wrote a poem called I never saw another butterfly. He was at Terezín, near Prague. That particular camp was sort of a show camp for propaganda reasons,” says Moen. Writers, artists, actors and musicians were sent to the camp, and many ended up as counselors and teachers who encouraged the children to write and draw. “I can imagine that for the children in the camp, creating art was a way for them to escape the situation or to put their feelings down in a way that they wouldn't get in trouble.”
In Moen's own work, she is known for her little planets — stereographic projections of spherical panoramas that produce imaginary worlds. She is using one of her own little planets as a backdrop and destination for the art in this exhibit. The butterflies, hung from cables on black ribbons, float and wave as viewers move through the display.
While only a few of the butterflies can be shown, the works come from both children and adults. “Some are stained glass, glass, ceramic; there are many crocheted ones, which the skill level is exceptional there. Some are painted. I can tell you that the staff and visitors that have seen me installing it are all thrilled. They've been living with the project for 20 years,” says Moen. “Some are from children, very poignant, very simple, and then there are some exquisite ones where you can tell that somebody really labored over them.”
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“Taking Flight: The Butterfly Project" opens February 12 and continues through July 31, at Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline, open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., 713-942-8000, hmh.org.