A child survivor of the Holocaust who was interned at Terezin at the tender age of five, Vera Egermayer could be forgiven for wanting to forget the past. Instead, like so many other Holocaust survivors, she has devoted a great deal of her time to sharing her story in order to make sure that the tragic lessons of WWII are kept alive for future generations. When she last spoke to Radio Prague in 2013, from her home in New Zealand, she had a dream: to build a memorial honouring the one and a half million children killed during the Holocaust. That dream has since come true and Vera visited Radio Prague’s studio recently to share her feelings.
“First, let me say it was not just my dream. There´s a whole team of people, there are children, there are teachers, there are members of the Holocaust centre, of the Jewish community who had the same dream and what has happened is beyond my expectations.”
You and the whole team actually started the endeavour by collecting one and a half million buttons, one button for each child. Was that to make the project more engaging for children?
“Yes, absolutely. The project itself was started by a teacher at a small Jewish school and she wanted to give children (there were about twenty in her class) some idea of that enormity of the disaster. So she thought of collecting buttons. They touched the buttons; they had to count the buttons. In fact, it sometimes became a little bit of a bore - the ritual of counting. Imagine counting a million and a half. But the whole idea was to get them involved and to get them thinking about children like them, who´d lost their lives. So it started in a school with a teacher and then the adults became involved.”
“Yes. One button for each child and the buttons are very different from each other, as all the children were. But the buttons should not really be sacred, I mean they´re just symbols of lives and the main purpose was to get the children and adults to think about the lost potential, the cut-off lives and to learn history as well.”
Who gave you these buttons, who did you get them from?
“They came from all over the world. From people in New Zealand, many people I contacted directly in Europe, well-known people from the Czech Republic. We had a survivor Dagmar Lieblova who gave buttons from the Terezin initiative for her family; we had Chava Pressburger in Israel, so from all over the world and from prominent people in New Zealand. Simple people, people who were touched by the story and perhaps had a connection with World War II themselves. So many sources and the children had to write letters to get these buttons in, count them. There would be whole teams counting buttons and storing them, so it was a very long project.”
“It was not directly with schools at that point. You see, we didn´t know where to put the buttons really, that was the problem. There was a difference in vision. Some people in the Jewish community and in the Holocaust Centre felt the buttons should be kept in a Holocaust centre. Others felt they should go out into the world. Perhaps in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand (where the button collection started), in a public space, perhaps on the waterfront in Wellington, perhaps in the Botanical Garden, but nobody wanted the buttons permanently so we had to store them. And of course they deteriorated; they had to be cleaned and so on. They did come from everywhere and the storage was a problem for some time.”
There was a question, whether it should possibly be a travelling exhibition?
“That was a genial solution, when finally the end of the storage period came and we could no longer keep them in the basement of the Holocaust Centre. Whilst they were there, they were still accessible and children would come down and look at the baskets full of buttons and run their finger through it. But that period came to an end. Someone (and I was not that person), came up with the idea of having a travelling memorial. That´s were a designer came in and designed the memorial so that it can be moved from place to place. Initially, it will go all around New Zealand. It´s in Wellington and Auckland, it will go south to Christchurch. But that idea developed out of necessity - no home for the buttons. They can´t stay in the Holocaust Centre, no one else wants them permanently, so the idea of a moving or a transportable memorial arose. It was a compromise, but a genial one, because now it´s everywhere, not just in one place.”
“Yes, it was the designer himself who is of Dutch origin, who´s very sensitive to World War II since it touches his own family history to some extent. He thought of it in terms of a set of tables, like a nest of tables that fit into each other, showing the interrelationship between us all. People see it differently, it can be a fountain, a cascade, but basically it´s a set of tables that collapse into each other. When the whole thing is in one small space it can be like a tower, but when it´s spread out it can be like a river, it can be like a train, it depends on your imagination. The buttons are visible all the time, they´re glass. It´s like a set of drawers if you like. The advantage is that it can fit into many different spaces and it´s organic in a way. I mean, it is both a memorial that travels around and also that changes its form in the traveling.”
You yourself are a child survivor, and you have spent much of your life trying to help children to understand the enormity of the one and a half million lives lost. Is it difficult in the present day and age to help young children understand what happened and how do you expose young children to that kind of information?
“The best way (and that´s used now in Holocaust teaching) is to tell a story. So you tell the story of one child for example, and that is the way young children understand. And when they think of another young child like them, being projected into a mass of one and a half million, I think they do understand. And of course children like all of us are now subject or able to see suffering in many forms – television, films and so on. So even young children can appreciate suffering, but the buttons were a very good way of presenting it and telling the story. There are many Czech children who lie in these buttons, my own cousin murdered at fourteen, Peter Ginz, Hana whom we know from “Hana’s suitcase”, so telling a story. This is what has been done in this children´s book written by a New Zealand author.”
“The book is a by-product of the memorial. First we had buttons, and then we had a teacher who got children to collect. Then we had the buttons stored, still talking about the stories lying within them. Then the memorial itself and on the basis of the memorial, a book was written. This is a book for children between the ages of five and seven. The English is simple and words are repeated, so it´s an exercise as well. It´s an upbeat book, it´s not a book about suffering it´s more a book about what kind of values children should have, how to look at the world, how to recognize that other people are like them. It´s a very positive message and the book is very colourful, it´s a bright book. It cheers you up, it doesn´t pull you down. That is a way of conveying something to children.”
“Yes, the memorial is set up in the National Library in Wellington, because the project is at Wellington Centre, propelled by the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand. It is like a museum if you like, where stories are kept and visitors come. It is housed in the National Library and it has several sections. It has a section with the memorial itself set up - this cascade of tables if you like, nothing around it (that´s the way the designer wanted it). Then it´s got other areas, it´s got a reading area – we have books there, Helga Hošková – Weissová´s book it there, we have Anne Frank´s Diary so the children can also read. This is just to give you an image of the place where the memorial is housed.
“There is a section on up-standers, trying to get children not to be by-standers, but to do something when they feel something, to behave decently. This is what Nicolas Winton (who was by the way a patron of this project) tried to instil in people. So imagine the space reading area, up-standers area and the memorial itself. That space has been visited by thousands of people and there is a regular teaching programme around the memorial. We have educators trained in Yad Vashem, who tell their own stories. I am one of the few and there are others who tell their own story. Usually, they tell the story of a relative. There are many children and I have addressed groups in that space myself, who come and who are touched. But you don´t want people crying, that´s not what it´s about. It´s to instil good behaviour, to be a decent person, a decent child or a decent friend. Pick the rubbish up, if you see it. It has a broader message and children respond very well – very positively.”
Your endeavour and this memorial is also a message, a reminder for people, as you say, to behave decently, to stand up to prejudice, discrimination and apathy. Do you think you are addressing a very topical issue in the present day?
“Clearly, there is a lot of apathy in the world today. There is a lot of violence in the world and people have to make that connection themselves. They see it in their daily lives. I mean, I was shocked just recently in Prague by two events. One was the vandalizing of a memorial at the Prague railway station to the parents who gave up their children, saved by Nicolas Winton (the patron of the project and a friend of mine). Someone vandalised that. They were not caught on camera, because there was no camera there. That is a very troubling event that has crept into this country, which has been reasonably peaceful.
“And the other event that I heard on the news was a young boy of sixteen, threatening classmates with a fire-arm. Those are very troubling events on our doorstep here, just as, of course, in New Zealand. The massacre of the Muslim community at prayer in a mosque in Christchurch was a wakeup call. Evil is abroad, it is abroad all the time. We have to reflect on what happened in the past and somehow adjust our behaviour. It can be daily behaviour, we don´t have to be politicians. We can just be normal people who behave in a kind and decent way. It is a warning that we´re not safe anywhere.”
Has this project, in fact working with children, helped you to come to terms with what happened on a personal level?
“Some people say they worked on the button project, because they could imagine themselves being a button, but they were spared. I don´t quite have that, because that is actually one way of looking at my story. I was in Terezin, as a five- year-old child right at the end of the war. The last transport after the liberation of Auschwitz, so I could say to myself how lucky that I didn´t end up as a button. But what I really reflect on is the dilemmas, the relationships around this whole evil, what my parents had to decide. My mother had to decide to be separated from me at one point. My parents got married when the occupation of Czechoslovakia occurred, so I am looking for an understanding of my own life and I hope to give something back in my daily life. So that is what the buttons have brought me. It is not a lot of tears and a lot of trauma, it´s more trying to see what it means for me and for us and what I can do with that knowledge.
“And, I´ll just add one thing. Because of my two loyalties to my background, to Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic, to New Zealand (where we emigrated when I was an eight-year- old child) and my European life if you wish. I would really like this memorial to travel here one day, across the ocean and be part of the new memorial at the Bubny Railway Station. I am currently working on that with people who are in charge. I can see it being really an integral part of Bubny, which is being created.”
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