New Zealand’s Button Memorial to the Children of the Holocaust

Vera Egermayer has travelled around Europe in the last months, spreading the word about New Zealand’s Button Memorial to the Children of the Holocaust, a project initiated by Moriah College in Wellington and now being brought to fruition by the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand (HCNZ).

Following her visit to the Holocaust Centre of Oslo and to a former Jewish orphanage in Prague (now a Lauder School), Vera travelled to Paris to meet Serge Klarsfeld, renowned Holocaust historian and Nazi hunter.

Vera writes:

11,400 Jewish children were deported from France between 27 March 1942 and 22 August 1944.  France’s memorial to these children is not made of buttons like New Zealand’s but of paper- many layers of paper. The first layer was cemented with the publication in 1994 of the Memorial to the Jewish Children Deported from France showing the names, dates of birth, ages and, for the first time, painstakingly retrieved, the last known addresses and photos of 1533 of these children. The photos and documentation bought the children out of the shadows of history and provided incontrovertible proof of their existence and of their murder.  This publication was the work of one man, Serge Klarsfeld assisted by the Association of Sons and Daughters of the Jews Deported from France (FFDJF) which he founded.  Over the last two decades Serge Klarsfeld has continued to add more layers to the memorial with a series of supplements to the original publication. The 10th supplement will bring the total number of photos published and of lives retrieved to 4200. The photos continue to trickle in from the four corners of the world – often removed from the albums of surviving family, friends, former neighbours, school mates or sourced from offices, churches and other institutions.

I discovered another layer of this memorial to Jewish Children deported from France, in the heart of the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris.  It is a gallery of photos drawn from the publications. Over 3000 black and white photos – set in 16 luminous, back-lit, wordless panels which line the walls from ceiling to floor. Each photo, each face, represents a life that was stolen before it could be lived.  These faces will never leave you once you have seen them. They look out with haunting innocence unaware of the horror that lies ahead. They are all children – some mere babies, others in their teens, almost grown up.  Children on their own or in a family group with their brothers and sisters, the youngest sibling standing on a chair, a small face in the back row of a class photo, a little boy in a hand knitted outfit standing beside his rocking horse, a 6 year old girl in her ballet dress with a yellow star stitched on the left breast and a bow in her hair, a passing snapshot taken in the street, boys caught in movement showing off, acting the clown, boys carefully groomed posing for a birthday portrait, small children holding their mother’s hand or sitting on their father’s knee, some elegantly dressed, others in modest attire.  A mammoth task of painstaking documentation over almost two decades provides this incontestable testimony against holocaust denial and leaves an indelible memory.  It is hard to pass by –you keep wanting to go back and have another look into the eyes of a particular child wondering what he felt as he was trundled around Europe like a piece of debris and then crushed and thrown away.  This is was the fate of the 44 children savagely snatched away by a Nazi gang from a communal home in the remote village of Izieu in France where their parents had placed them for safe-keeping.  This is what happened to most of the children plucked from Jewish institutions in the Paris area a mere month before the liberation of Paris, the last transport from Drancy to Auschwitz being composed exclusively of children.

Children being rounded up from Jewish institutions are a painful reminder of my own deportation to Terezin from a children’s home in Prague on 16 March 1945, six week before the end of the war.  Fortunately, I survived and will not be symbolised in New Zealand’s memorial to the 1.5 million – and fortunately neither will the 60,000 Jewish children (85 per cent of the total) whom the French succeeded in saving.

There are no faces or dates for the 1.5 million children symbolized in New Zealand’ s button memorial. Holocaust memorials take many forms but, whether of paper or of buttons, whether conceived by adults or children, they are all an expression of deep respect for the suffering of fellow human beings, and our abiding responsibility not to forget them.

And what does M Klarsfeld think of our button memorial in New Zealand?

I met Serge Klarsfeld last month in his office in rue La Boetie in Paris just off the Champs-Élysées.  When I described the memorial and told him how it had come about, he offered some suggestions aimed at putting more visual and documentary narrative into the memorial design as it is currently conceived. And then he stood up, leaned across his desk, took a pair of scissors from the draw, cut a button from the sleeve of the suit he was wearing and handed it to me. That button will be part of New Zealand’s Button Memorial to the children of the Holocaust. It is the only button from France and it stands for the 74,000 French Jewish children who perished in the Shoah.  It is an affirmation that every European country has a stake in New Zealand’s Button Memorial to the Children of the Holocaust.