emerges in Houston
Lives of 11
million unfold in 'Wings of Witness'
By AARON HOWARD
(Jewish Herald-Voice, Houston, Texas, September
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
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.
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.
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
important to us to teach about diversity here," says Daugherty. "How
do you teach about diversity when the biggest one here is socio-economic
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.
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.
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
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.
two things happened:
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.
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.
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
students responded to the challenge. They posted news of their collection on the
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."
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.
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.
(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
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.
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.
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.
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.
soon as I heard about the tabs, I knew I had to find out about it (the
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.
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
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
"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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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
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."
"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