‘Butterfly Project’:La Jolla students join Holocaust remembrance

young students at local La jolla school paint ceramic butterflies for holocaust remembrance on butterfly day

“Never forget,” Holocaust survivor and San Diego resident Ben Midler says of the horrors he experienced in concentration camps in World War II, when he was a child.

Midler spoke to the students and faculty at La Jolla Country Day School during their “Butterfly Day” event Sept 20, during which each person on campus painted a ceramic butterfly as part of The Butterfly Project

The Butterfly Project, an international endeavor originating at San Diego Jewish Academy in 2006, aligns with Midler’s messaging in that the organization’s mission is to honor “our commitment to the survivors to never forget,” according to its website.

To that end, The Butterfly Project aims to have its participants paint 1.5 million butterflies to remember the 1.5 million children killed during the Holocaust.

It’s estimated more than 330,000 butterflies have been painted thus far.

The project is so named for the 1942 poem “The Butterfly,” written by a young prisoner at the Terezin concentration camp.

At Country Day, before the 1,180 students from age three through 12th grade painted their butterflies, they engaged in mixed-aged activities – one classroom had third-, eighth- and 11th-graders together – to get to know each other.

The activities were planned and executed by the upper school students at the school.

“What’s so special about our species … is that we can celebrate these differences with one another …  and find joy in things that are different,” senior Olivia Luddy said after leading an icebreaker in her classroom.

“The Butterfly Project is all about that,” she said, “because we have always, as humans, struggled with being uncomfortable, and sometimes being uncomfortable and meeting new people is really important.

Each ceramic butterfly came with a card with a photo and short biography of each child Holocaust victim.

Luddy has participated in The Butterfly Project four times with various organizations, “and it’s always a lot [emotionally] to see their names,” she said.

She keeps doing it, though, as “they were all kids. I’m not Jewish. I don’t have any connection to the faith. But … I just can’t fathom that type of hatred. It makes me angry in a way that makes me keep coming back to it because I think it’s important … to get kids to study it.”

Butterfly Day also included an assembly, at which the community listened to Midler, who is 95 and survived six concentration camps after being forced out of his hometown in Poland while the rest of his family was killed. 

Holocaust survivor Ben Midler giving a speech at local La Jolla school

“Never forget” the Holocaust, Midler said. “I hope by speaking out, it will never happen again.”

Midler was encouraged to survive – and thrive for decades beyond the Holocaust – through his positivity.

“Be positive…Remember [the bad], only don’t live in it. … My motto is, ‘Yesterday is gone. Today is today, and tomorrow will be a better day.’”

Ben Midler, Holocaust survivor, and San Diego resident

The assembly also included a concert with student speeches and musical performances; Butterfly Day ended with the students shaping themselves into butterflies on the school’s field.  

The Butterfly Day is important as “it starts with ultimately understanding the inherent value of everyone’s life,” said Jonathan Shulman, director of the Country Day’s Center for Excellence and Citizenship.

“Here in La Jolla, we tend to think of ourselves as separate from the world around us,” Shulman said. 

“But we’re not,” he said, noting there are many Holocaust survivors in La Jolla, as well as other Americans who “watched their Japanese American classmates disappear” to incarceration camps during World War II.

It also wasn’t that long ago that restrictive covenants existed in La Jolla, Shulman said.

The covenants barred Jewish people from owning homes in La Jolla, a practice that ended in 1964.

“Today, [La Jolla] is thriving,” Shulman said.

Country Day takes on The Butterfly Project every four to five years, he said, as the goal is to have students who participated in their younger years advance their participation in the program in middle and upper school grades through increased responsibility. 

“It becomes something ideally that every student does three times if they’re here [for the duration of their education],” he said. 

The butterflies will be displayed permanently at Country Day in a manner to be decided by students and school community members, with a dedication, possibly in spring.

Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.
Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.

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