Like many child survivors of the Holocaust Vera Egermayer, started a new life in a new environment soon after the war. Her family moved to New Zealand when she was just eight and the country became her second homeland. A few years after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia she returned to her birthplace as New Zealands honorary consul and faced the ghosts of the past, the murder of family members and her own internment at Terezin.
Vera Egermayer thanks Ariel, an Israeli backpacker, for his founding contribution to the Memorial, photo: NZ Children’s Holocaust Memorial website As a witness and Holocaust survivor she is now leading a project to build a Children’s Holocaust Memorial in Wellington, New Zealand. The memorial is to be built from 1.5 million donated buttons one for each Jewish child killed in the Holocaust. Over the phone from New Zealand she told me how the idea arose.
Well, an idea is never just one persons because usually you are inspired by something else that happened, but in this case the driving force was a teacher in Moriah School, a small school in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, which had about 30 pupils there. They were learning a little bit about the Holocaust and about WWII and other tragedies gently because of course the way you expose young children to this kind of information has to be well considered. And they started being curious about what happened to those children and how they themselves could, symbolically but actively, do something about it. So that is the way the idea was born: learning about children who had suffered and having an inspiring teacher and getting the idea of a symbol. The button is, of course, one of the best symbols because it is like a circle of life. It is touched by peoples hands, both by the giver, by givers from all over the world, and also by children handling the buttons. Because, you know, to count physically 1.5 million buttons over three years is quite a task. Somebody said to us why didnt you just weigh the buttons? You can extrapolate on the basis of a few kilos. But, no, every button was touched by a childs hand and an adults hand from somewhere elseso that is how the idea arose.
Vera, each button represents a lost child. Do the buttons come to you with stories of their own? Do people send buttons of sentimental value to them?
Photo: NZ Children’s Holocaust Memorial website Absolutely, there are all kinds of stories from the givers I will tell you a couple that I remember but one of the best ways to get that information is on our website. There is a domain called Vestiges of Love where we have a sample of the letters received. There were many, many. They came from non-Jewish people, they came from people from all walks of life. A lady in Oslo sent 88 buttons because there were 88 Norwegian children who were murdered and her family was in the resistance, so that was her story. Someone sent us the button of one person: their cousin, and gives that story. We got a button off a soldiers uniform.in all many, many stories, personal stories which make it a moving project. Some of those stories are on our website and others will be added.
So it is not just people who sympathize with your project has it also given the children interaction with WWII survivors or their descendants?
They are not survivors who send the buttons. The buttons come from ordinary people who read about the endevour and who wanted to be part of it. It was a sense of compassion. It started off with children, you know the world learned that children had suffered and some of them considered their own suffering. For example a cousin of mine had just been diagnosed with cancer. She was 55-years-old and she sent in 55 buttons, thinking of children suffering somewhere else. So the connections are very intricate, it is not directly survivor to children or anyone associated with the war and that is the beauty of the project: that it can give life to all kinds of people who have suffered and have empathy.
So Moriah schoolchildren have now collected 1.5 million buttons and are fundraising to build a memorial for child victims of the Holocaust. We know it is to be built in Wellington but do we know what it is going to look like? Do you have ideas already?
Photo: NZ Children’s Holocaust Memorial website Yes, we do have some ideas because this project captures the imagination of artists and writers. We have had many proposals, but we cannot say what it will look like until we have an actual site. But if you would like some ideas then there has been one from the children themselves. They thought of a labyrinth that people could wander through and where the buttons would be shown against a transparent exterior with maybe water running down, but that is just one of many possibilities. When we get the site we will get artists on the job and there are no limits to what it can be. We have studied Holocaust monuments and sculptures around the world and it really lends itself to a creative mind to enforce the esthetic, the moral message of what we are trying to do. Because our main aim, and this could be a little bit contrary to other projects, is to raise awareness, to let people know what we are doing and to get them on board as we say. The fundraising well, of course we need money but that is not our message and we will gratefully take whatever small donation anybody gives. Our message is: know about it, feel for the project. And we have recently modified our website along those lines. The design virtually takes any appeal for funds out. There is a small mention: if you want to give, go to another website. But we want to tell people that this is going on.
Vera, how do you come to be involved in this project? It is no coincidence, is it?