Eighty years ago, Europe was in the throes of World War II as Nazi Germany, under the reign of Adolf Hilter’s Third Reich, seized much of the lands to its east, including the countries of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Not only was the invading German army’s seizing of sovereign countries brutally violent, its heinous treatment of Jewish inhabitants and the resulting Holocaust is numbing to comprehend. One concentration camp, Terezin, near the Czech capital city of Prague, housed some 15,000 children in 1942, with only 100 surviving to the eventual liberation in April 1945.
Many of the Jewish captives, who worked at the former fort turned concentration camp, were worked and starved to nearly death. They were then railroaded to Auschwitz, Poland, were they were killed in the gas chambers by the millions. Yet, despite the despair, the children of the camp wrote poems and produced beautiful artwork that depicted the ghetto conditions they had to endure. Their remarkable work was published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum of Washington D.C., and entitled I Never Saw Another Butterfly Again, which features scores of poems and drawings by the children. One of the poems, The Butterfly, reads:
The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
Against a white stone.
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world good-bye…..
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
In remembrance of the horrors these children faced, students at St. Francis Xavier School in Gettysburg have spent the winter and early spring learning about the children of Terezan in Mrs. Sherry Grenchik’s classes. Students in the seventh and eighth grades have created their own poems and striking artwork that lines the walls of the school. In addition, the students have taken part in watching the metamorphous of a caterpillar from chrysalis stage to mature butterfly. On Easter Sunday, the six Painted Lady butterflies emerged and on a cool, drippy, April 21, Mrs. Grenchik’s students released the butterflies, who flitted away to begin their freedom in the fields and woods surrounding Gettysburg.
“This is one of the most interesting projects I have ever done,” Mrs. Grenchik said prior to releasing the butterflies. “I was so impressed with what the students did on their own…. They really worked at researching the symbols for their artwork as well as their written work. They just did an outstanding job…and it is very touching to see what they came up with in their work.”
The lower grades also participated in a project about the children of Terezin and the project may be continued in the future given its eager reception by the students.
“I don’t think I could ever have endured what those children did there,” eighth-grader Ivy Nieves said. “The hearing of their stories and what the children went through at the concentration camps is just incredible.”
Classmates Olivia Knox and Maddox Glass echoed Ivy’s sentiments and thought the struggles of the children some 80 years ago reminds them how awful it was to be treated in such an inhumane way. “This project really made me think, and I just cannot imagine what they went through with only 100 surviving the camp.”
“I have never done a project like this and I really think it is the best project I have ever worked on,” Maddox said. “And I am thankful we were able to do this project at our school. I will remember it for sure.”
The students hope their released butterflies survive and flourish and create more generations of winged symbols of peace. If you see a medium sized butterfly with red spots on its wings dance about the wildflowers of Gettysburg’s hallowed fields, thank the children of Mrs. Grenchik’s classes at St. Francis Xavier School for their thoughtful academic work that paid wonderful tribute to the child victims of mass murder in Europe four score years ago.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness