Butterflies Inspire Empathy and Counter Hate in Germany

Wed, 02/13/2019 - 4:38pm

The snow was falling ever so slightly, and the cold was biting and invigorating at the same time on what was otherwise a typical winter morning in a city not far from Berlin. On the side of a majestic brick schoolhouse, vibrant colorful butterflies were peeking out from behind a curtain, as if to prove to the world that hope and beauty cannot be contained. And in this historic schoolhouse, children and their teachers, elected officials, community members and the media were all gathering for the remarkable day of remembrance and celebration that was about to unfold.

Over the years, the story of the Schindler family has become familiar to the students at La Jolla Country Day School in San Diego and at the Bewegte Grundschule in Cottbus, Germany. My mother, Rose Schindler (an Auschwitz survivor) first spoke at La Jolla Country Day in 2006. And in 2011, I decided to visit my father Max’s hometown. His community, like many others in Germany on October 28, 1938, failed to stand up to the Nazi decree that all Polish Jews were to be rounded up and expelled to Poland. These schoolchildren learned about my uncle Alfred, a 10-year old student of their school, who like his younger brother, Max, and their sister, Cäcelie, was removed from school on that day to leave Cottbus forever.

On January 25, 2019, the fifth and sixth graders of Bewegte Grundschule honored the Schindlers, other Cottbus families and all those affected during the Holocaust by unveiling a Butterfly Project memorial to the 1.5 million children murdered during this dark moment in history. This first-ever initiative in Germany introduced a new, younger audience (Holocaust education typically starts during ninth grade in Germany) to real stories of local children and used art and memorial-making to cultivate empathy and educate about the dangers of unchecked hatred and bigotry.

The “Connecting USA-Germany” bi-national initiative grew from an unexpected friendship with Nicole Nocon, the freelance journalist who shepherded me around on that first visit to Cottbus in 2011. I realized in meeting Nicole that a special opportunity to reconcile with the fear, anger and sadness I associated with the community that scorned and expelled my father from his hometown as a child was possible. And in getting to know Nicole, I realized that I represented a pathway for her own reconciliation for the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans during the Holocaust. From opposite sides of the conflict and separated by generations, Nicole and I are kindred spirits. And we shared a desire to act to ensure that the atrocities of the past would neither be forgotten nor be rekindled by a growing neo-Nazi presence in Cottbus.

In 2018 in San Diego and in Cottbus, our vision to inspire children and our communities to stand up to hate took flight. The enormity and the horrifying images of the Holocaust were not part of the curriculum. Instead, these children separated by the Atlantic connected with real stories of their peers through biographies of child victims. They used the lessons of those experiences, reported by Germany’s ARD 1 NachtMagazin, to explore their social responsibility to stand up for all human beings and each painted a ceramic butterfly to honor, remember and memorialize a child lost in the Holocaust, including one for my Aunt Cäcelie.

The ceremony and unveiling of the permanent Butterfly Project memorial in Cottbus was a combination of inspired speeches, musical and dance performances by the schoolchildren and blessings led by a Rabbi Walter Rothschild, who joined us from Berlin. My family and I were filled with joy and hope. The children were filled with connection, conviction and purpose. And I would like to think that the community members who attended and others who will see this memorial for years to come will take comfort in knowing that my family remains connected to Cottbus with hope for future filled with tolerance and acceptance. A memorial is planned for La Jolla Country Day School later this year.

The timeliness and salience of this initiative in Germany was further accentuated by the fact that there was a major AfD (German nationalist and neo-Nazi political party) demonstration in Cottbus on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, two days following our ceremony and installation. I returned on that day with my brother, Jeff, to join approximately 450 Cottbusers for an important Green Party counter-demonstration and spoke to the gathering about my family’s experience and our great pride and support of Cottbus’ citizens standing up to protect the rights of others, regardless of religion, race, color, sexual orientation or gender.  

My first visit to La Jolla Country Day School was to support my mother. My first visit to Cottbus was an attempt to connect with my father on a deeper level and to further explore my experience as a son of Holocaust survivors. What I have learned is that my efforts for connection have provided me with a unique path to reconcile with the community of Cottbus and created a bond of trust that the lessons of the past will not be forgotten.

More than 50 supporters in the United States contributed to The Butterfly Project for this important initiative to inspire younger students from countries on opposite sides of WWII to be more empathetic and to counter hate. I am forever grateful to our collaborator and my great friend Nicole Nocon in Cottbus, who made me feel a member of the community from the moment I stepped off the train at the Cottbus Haptbanhof eight years ago. Nicole also received funding from Local Action Plan Cottbus – “Living Democracy”  and single-handedly brought The Butterfly Project to life in Cottbus.

Steven Schindler