Butterflies have come to represent life and freedom,” said Nancy Galler-Malta, education director at Gesher Shalom, the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee.
“When we talk with children about the Shoah, we share with them the poetry written by the children of Terezin, including the poem, ‘I never saw another butterfly.'”
And when she shows students the film “Paper Clips” about the efforts of Tennessee school children to memorialize the Holocaust, she points out the Tennessee memorial’s walkway, lined with concrete butterflies.
“It has become a beautiful, peaceful symbol linked with the survival of the community,” she said.
Galler-Malta – who has spearheaded the creation of a permanent art exhibit at Gesher Shalom in memory of the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust – said that congregant-created butterflies will be the focus of the piece.
The project, “Zikaron v’Tikvah: The Remembrance & Hope Project,” officially launched on Nov. 9, was inspired by a program started two years ago at the San Diego, Calif., Jewish Academy, said Galler-Malta. In an effort to collect one and a half million handmade ceramic butterflies, the California school asked other communities to make 18 butterflies each and send them along. According to Galler-Malta, the San Diego school now has thousands of these.
Noting that a group in Houston chose to set up its own memorial rather than send its butterflies to San Diego, she said the Fort Lee shul decided to create its own memorial as well. While Gesher Shalom will still send 18 butterflies to be displayed in San Diego, it will also house an 8-by-4 foot mural, decorated with 180 hand-painted ceramic butterflies.
“Eighteen (chai) represents life,” said Galler-Malta, explaining that “choosing 10 times chai signifies longevity and hope.” The educator has already painted the mural, which will rest in a glass case in the school wing of the building.
Galler-Malta, with a background in fine arts and design, said she researched the kind of clay to use for the butterflies and then invited volunteers – students, parents, and congregants – to help prepare the templates for painting.
On Nov. 9, as congregants gathered to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the painting began at a special session that included poetry readings by children and adults, focusing on the poems of the children in Terezin. The room was set up for 60 people, with 50 different shades of paint to choose from.
“Some butterflies were decorated with messages such as hope, strength, and courage,” said Galler-Malta, noting that 150 butterflies were painted. All were signed and dated.
The plan is to have “a special survivor section in the middle,” she said, adding that “it is our hope that each survivor will individually paint a butterfly.”
“We especially encourage Holocaust survivors from all around the county to join us in this endeavor and leave their permanent mark for future generations,” said Galler-Malta, noting that those interested in sharing their stories should submit them, to be placed in a special book that will accompany the exhibit.
“We’ve got a huge number of survivors here,” she said, pointing out that some 20 of the shul’s butterflies have already been painted by survivors.
“We’re setting aside special times for them to participate,” she said, “and some have done their butterflies together with children.” Survivors’ butterflies are marked with an “S,” she said, “linking the past with the future.”
Galler-Malta said that ever since she was a child, she has been interested in hearing and publicizing the stories of survivors. She noted that at age 8, she was the first person to hear the survival story of her grandmother’s friend.
“I interviewed her and put it on a cassette,” she said. “I’m always privileged and honored when survivors speak with me.”
The educator said that participation by the congregation in Zikaron v’Tikvah will accomplish two important goals. “The next generation will learn to remember the past, act responsibly in the present, and create a more peaceful future,” she said, “while we, as a community, will be able to honor the many survivors among us.”
She said she hoped to begin affixing the butterflies soon. If they don’t all fit, she said, she will expand the mural.
Noting that each butterfly painted so far is slightly different, expressing the personality of the individual painters, Galler-Malta said that her first inclination was to standardize the butterflies in some way, whether with glitter or borders.
“But my daughter said, ‘Why change them?'” So now, she said, her challenge will be “to make them separate but together.”
“The project reflects the emotional commitment of a lot of people,” she added. “I’m really creating a palette with which others have an opportunity to express themselves. It’s exciting to watch and to see their reactions.”