Wings of Witness

Butterfly emerges in Houston
Lives of 11 million unfold in 'Wings of Witness'
(Jewish Herald-Voice, Houston, Texas, September 13,2000)


One of the implications of the Nazi attempt to destroy the Jewish people was the drive to reduce human beings to discarded objects. At the center of the Nazi Volk culture was the idea that some races are superior and others are subhuman. This idea culminated in the concentration camps, where human beings were reduced to numbers tattooed into their skin, then systematically drained of all material life before their bodies were burned.

In 1996, New York artist Jeffrey Schrier began working on an idea for a Holocaust memorial sculpture that would somehow symbolize how people must resist any drive to treat human beings as discarded and worthless objects. By chance, Schrier heard about a project in Illinois  where junior high school students had collected 11 million pull tabs from soda cans. The exercise created a tangible understanding of the enormity of 11 million. Something clicked. Schrier instantly knew he had found the source material for his sculpture. "Wings of Witness," Schrier's work in progress, will go on display at Holocaust Museum Houston on Thursday, Sept. 21.

Actually, the Houston exhibition is just a part of a giant sculpture in the shape of a butterfly, which will be about 45 feet high and 75 feet wide when it is completed. The sculpture's shape was inspired by a poem written by a Jewish child, Pavel Friedmann, a prisoner in the Terezin "model" concentration camp in 1944. Each "feather" that makes up the wings of Schrier's butterfly is composed of 613 soda can pull tabs strung on a aluminum wire and then bent in half and fastened by an aluminum rod. 

The story of this sculpture began in Kevin Daugherty's seventh-grade social studies class at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School in December 1996. Jane Fisk, a teacher, also helped Daugherty a great deal. Located about 130 miles south of Chicago, Mahomet is a farm community of 3,875 that is turning into a bedroom community for the University of Illinois in Champaign. The school population of 650 is nearly all white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Among the student population are one black family, three Jewish families and a few Catholics, according to Daugherty. 

"It's important to us to teach about diversity here," says Daugherty. "How do you teach about diversity when the biggest one here is socio-economic differences?"

Daugherty began by asking Eva Mozes Kor, A Holocaust survivor, to come and tell his class about her experiences. Kor lost members of her family at Auschwitz after they were transported there in 1944.

To prepare for Kor's visit, Daugherty assigned his class to research the political background against which the Holocaust took place. The students read, researched and even volunteered to follow, for a day, the minimal rations given to concentration camp prisoners. According to Daugherty, it was the scale of the Holocaust that was the most difficult thing for the students to understand.

"A million of anything is hard enough for an adult to grasp. So how do you demonstrate six million? Our intention was not to symbolize human life but to go after a number, to show what a number looked like, "explains Daugherty. 

The social studies teacher challenged his class to bring in pop tops from aluminum soda cans. Originally, the pull tabs were not intended to represent human lives. They simply were a concrete way for the students to visualize numbers in the millions.  

Then two things happened:

Kor visited the school. She brought 119 pull tabs, one for every member of her relatives murdered by the Nazis. Kor dropped the tabs, one at a time, into the 890,000 that that students had already collected. As she dropped each tab, she named another person in her family. Suddenly, pull tabs had a whole new meaning for the students. 

Secondly, the Internet expanded the contours of the initial project. Journalist James Keeran at a Bloomington, Illinois newspaper wrote about the project. The article was posted on the Internet. At the same time, the Internet had spawned the Arthur Butz phenomenon. Butz is a Holocaust denier. At the time, he was on the academic staff at Northwestern University in Illinois. Butz had a Web site that claimed the Holocaust was a hoax. "He's located about 120 miles from us in Mahomet," says Daugherty. 

"So whenever a news agency ran story about Butz, it seemed it would also run a story on us, what were doing. We got a lot of positive publicity because of his negative publicity."

The students responded to the challenge. They posted news of their collection on the Internet. 

"Our local paper made us seem like airheads, just piling up a bunch of pop tops," said 14-year-old student Veronica Stephens. "But we did a lot of research. We knew what we were talking about. I was shocked to find that Time magazine once named Hitler its Man of the Year."

Teachers, students and ordinary citizens from all 50 states and eight countries responded by sending pull tabs. Between Dec. 15, 1996, and Apr. 28, 1997, the students collected 11 million tabs.

"Originally, we were going to string them up on wire and put them around the school building," recalls Daugherty. "But they came in so fast, we had to put them in brown paper grocery bags. Each bag contained about 20,000 pop tops, which corresponds to the number of people killed each day during the height of the killings at Auschwitz. 

"Eva (Kor) brought 119 pop tops, which was the number of people killed in her family. If I put my hand in the paper bag and scoop a handful out, that's about 120 pop tops. "

As the school year came to an end and the pull tab collection surpassed its original goals, the students began plans to sell their collection to a recycling company. The idea was to donate the proceeds to the Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Ind. where Kor is actively involved. 

Five tons of aluminum tabs were on their way to the recycling plant when Robert Silverman, executive director of the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation, intervened. Silverman did not know what he was going to do with the tabs. All he knew was that the aluminum tabs had taken on a symbolic meaning beyond mere numbers. They had now come to symbolize the lives taken during the Holocaust. And Silverman did not want to see these symbols consigned to the flames. He went to Lou Mervis, chief executive officer of the recycling plant, and successfully got Mervis to agree to store the tabs. 

Meanwhile, Schrier was thinking about wings. The wing concept had first come about as Schrier was working on a memorial to honor Raoul Wallenberg. Schrier initially envisioned creating a massive pair of wings of thousands of schutzpasses, the passports Wallenberg created to save Jewish lives. Although Schrier decided to create a giant, 12-foot high passport to document the Wallenberg story, he longed to create something from his wing sketches. At his studio in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. , Schrier began experimenting with broken glass as material for the wings.

In May 1997, Schrier was invited to speak at a small Jewish museum in Providence, R.I. He talked about the wings he intended to make with broken glass. Someone in the audience spoke of having seen a program on ABC television, the night before, about a school that had collected 11 million pull tabs. 

"As soon as I heard about the tabs, I knew I had to find out about it (the collection) right away," recalls Schrier. "Think of the possibilities of 11 million tabs collected from all over the place." Schrier contact the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. The center tracked down the school on the Internet and put Schrier in tough with Daugherty. 

"Once we talked for a while, we realized we had similar sympathies, kind of a similar view of all of this. He was very supportive of my idea to make wings out of tabs. But he informed the tabs had been sent to a recycling plant. He gave me the phone number of the owner of the plant, Lou Mervis, and the number of Robert Silverman who, on his own accord, had stopped the tabs from being recycled. 

"This all happened within a week or so. If the timing would have been slightly off, I might have never heard about the tabs. Daugherty sent Schrier some boxes of loose tabs that weren't at the recycling plant. The artist began to explore different techniques of working with the tabs. It took Schrier five-and a-half months to figure out how to make a feather out of soda tabs, aluminum wire and an aluminum rod.

"I needed to figure out how to make a feather that students from around the country could help me construct. The feather had to be easy for young people to participate in, yet challenging enough to be interesting, says Schrier. 

His solution: String 613 tabs (one for each mitzvah in the Torah) on a wire. Double the wire over. Then insert a two -foot piece of aluminum rod in the center to provide the feather's backbone and shape. Attach some 20,000 feathers together to form the shape of a huge butterfly. 

At this point, Schrier has run workshops involving nearly 18,000 young people from 14 states. Together, they have built over 8,000 feathers for the project, transforming more than five million of the tabs into feathers. The pull tabs have now taken on another symbolic meaning: a material from which to create art. 

"One of the most important civilizing aspects of humanity is our ability to be symbol makers," says Schrier. "Language and all our art expresses symbolic meaning. Go back to cave man paintings, which were wishes for success in the hunt. Cave paintings were art, but they also expressed hope. The expression of hope was more important to the artist than the art."

Pull tabs are the ultimate symbol of our throwaway culture. Yet they acquired meaning ,first as a symbol of the power of numbers, then as a symbol of something more profound. 

"The students lent a symbolic meaning to these tabs. Not me," explains Schrier. " The tabs had been endowed with meaning completely independent of what I was making. That's one thing that was so compelling." 

"The students did an in-depth study of the Holocaust. They learned about the political causes of the Holocaust, the lack of world responses, the different ghettos created in the regions of the Holocaust and the concentration camps. The initial idea was to collect the tabs to understand the profundity of the loss in  terms of numbers. At the same time, they guarded against becoming too involved in numbers by studying the loss of individual lives. 

"Some students have realized, while working with these tabs, that Jews and other minorities were treated like these tabs - worthless and discarded. They've understood the symbolism. If a tab falls on the floor, they pick it up because someone else collected them for the project. They know there are supposed to 613 tabs on a feather. What if a tab is lost? Something that has no meaning can now disturb somebody. That's the power of symbolism." 

Over the two months that the exhibit is in Houston, "Wings Of Witness" will approach the six million-tab mark. The exhibit is about 85 feet wide and 40 feet deep and weighs more than 5,000 pounds; about two thirds of that has been disassembled to come here and will be reassembled in Holocaust Museum Houston. 

A drop cloth sketch will be created on the floor, and the feathers will be lined out. At the termination of the exhibit, the feathers will be packed up in boxes and shipped to a storage location or to another exhibition site. When 11 million of the tabs are made into feathers, all the pieces will be made into a permanent form. Two foundries in upstate New York will create the massive final work after a structural and engineering analysis.

Daugherty note many people from the Houston area, especially The Woodlands, contributed pull tabs to the project. But the real story, he says won't be on display in Houston. "They were the lessons that touched 6000 students in Mahomet, he explains. 

"The most important thing I learned as a teacher is not to do any interviews unless a student is present at the interview. I never expected the media attention we got. When we got it ,it was important for the students to talk. It was their project. " 

"Students learned that during a television interview, reporters would talk to you for five minutes, but you'd get seconds on the air. Newspaper reporters would take the general context of what you said and maybe quote a few words. Live radio interviews were best because what you said would get out in full. So they learned a lot about the mass media. We talked a lot about why these things happen, how context can be distorted and how important it is to present a balance in the media."

The "Wings Of Witness" exhibit will open on Sept. 21 with remarks by artist Jeffrey Schrier and Robert Silverman, former director of the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation. Students will help install the exhibit on Sept. 19-20. On Sept. 23, the museum and Schrier will hold a series of feather building workshops form 10a.m. to 5 p.m. to coincide with Museum District Day. There will be opportunities for every museum visitor to contribute to the construction of the sculpture on that day. For details, phone the museum at 713/942-8000.


To request information about bringing workshops to your school or community, or about the memorial sculpture itself, contact Jeffrey Schrier:  

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