How These Painted Butterflies Are Educating Kids About One Of History’s Greatest Tragedies

Making a difference, one butterfly at a time.

It's difficult to fathom how a tiny butterfly could memorialize the millions of children lost to the Holocaust. But it's true. The beautiful and colorful insect is at the center of The Butterfly Project, which is highlighted in the documentary Not the Last Butterfly.

Co-directed by award-winning filmmaker Joe Fab, the documentary spotlights the project's remarkable story of hope, remembrance, and the healing power of art. By engaging young people to create ceramic butterflies — symbols of freedom and hope — while connecting to the stories of individual children killed in the Holocaust, the global education and arts program aims to share one of history's greatest tragedies in an easier way for children to comprehend.



Left to right: The Butterfly Project co-founders Jan Landau and Cheryl Rattner Price.
Left to right: The Butterfly Project co-founders Jan Landau and Cheryl Rattner Price. Courtesy of Not the Last Butterfly

"Art is so powerful as a means of expression, as a means of connecting people, of responding to the world," Jan Landau, an educator who co-founded The Butterfly Project in 2006 with artist Cheryl Rattner Price, said in the film.

One butterfly is painted for each child, including a child living at the Terezin Concentration Camp in the 1940s, Pavel Friedman, who wrote a poem entitled "The Butterfly." The poem is about a child who watched a butterfly in all its glory, flying around Terezin or "the ghetto," and then never seeing one again.

"Butterflies don't live in here, in the ghetto," the poem states.

Children are given a butterfly to paint after reading about a fallen child of the Holocaust.
Children are given a butterfly to paint after reading about a fallen child of the Holocaust. Courtesy of Not the Last Butterfly

It was one of many poems, essays, drawings, and paintings created by the children imprisoned at the death camp under the tutelage of Austrian artist Frederika "Friedl" Dicker-Brandeis, who secretly brought art supplies with her to Terezin when she was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1943. She taught more than 600 children how to express the trauma of their experiences through art. This was "a powerful form of resistance," as described in the documentary because teaching was prohibited by the Nazis. Not only did she make sure they signed their names and ages on all of their creations, but she hid 4,500 children's drawings in two suitcases, according to the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Frederika “Friedl” Dicker-Brandeis.
Frederika "Friedl" Dicker-Brandeis. Courtesy of Not the Last Butterfly

"I am painting with all possible intensity," Dicker-Brandeis wrote her sister-in-law Maria Brandeis in August 1944, two months before her death.

She was murdered by the Nazis on October 9, 1944, but her hidden treasure remained.

"When the artwork was discovered, there was a Czech woman named Rosa Englander, who knew that Friedl had hidden these works and found the paintings in the attic a few months after the war when they realized that she had not survived," The Butterfly Project's Co-Founder and Executive Director, Cheryl Rattner Price explained to A Plus.

Englander (the Czech spelling is Englanderova) turned them over to Willy Groag, head of one of the Girls Homes at Terezin, who then gave them to the Jewish Museum in Prague. The art inspired the book and play I Never Saw Another Butterfly."

Drawn by Ela Weissberger during her time at the Terezin Concentration Camp.
Drawn by Ela Weissberger during her time at the Terezin Concentration Camp. Courtesy of Not the Last Butterfly

One painting by a child at Terezin is of a Nazi solider with a smile on his face, which is ironic since they were the ones killing all the Jews under Adolf Hitler's command. The artist, Ela Weissberger — also a student of Dicker-Brandeis — is one of the last survivors of Terezin, where out of 15,000 children only 100 survived. She is now 86-years-old and working with The Butterfly Project. Weissberger is one of a small group of remaining survivors who participate in the project by meeting with the children and sharing their stories of survival, perseverance, and resilience while painting ceramic butterflies with them.



Terezin survivor Ela Weissberger (l.) holding the original Jewish star given to her by the Nazis for identification purposes, and The Butterfly Project's Cheryl Rattner Price.
Terezin survivor Ela Weissberger (l.) holding the original Jewish star given to her by the Nazis for identification purposes, and The Butterfly Project's Cheryl Rattner Price.

"(The Project) gives a voice back to the anonymous child," Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, said in the film.  

This butterfly beautiful journey began as a way to teach children about the horrific truths of the Holocaust without scaring them. The historical impact this travesty has had is something children from all backgrounds must know about. But simply showing them dismal, black-and-white images and videos from those dark times wasn't resonating with children, according to the film, so a new way of teaching that history had to be found, and Landau saw hope in making 1.5 million ceramic butterflies.

"(It's) an initiative to take Holocaust education out of the textbook and bring it to life in a way that inspires students to make the world a better place," according the documentary's website.

What started with the youth quickly became something bigger.

"As of 2016, installations totaling nearly 150,000 butterflies have been created in communities of all faiths across the United States and in such diverse countries as Israel, Mexico, Poland, Australia, Czech Republic, Canada and Argentina," the website also states.

The Project is far from reaching its 1.5 million goal, which the documentary aims to help with community and film festival screenings. A growing community of volunteers wanting to get in on the action of creating the ceramic butterflies has also aided in reaching the goal, including some famous contributors such as Hillary Clinton.  

The butterfly pained by Hillary Clinton for The Butterfly Project. 
The butterfly pained by Hillary Clinton for The Butterfly Project.  Courtesy of Not the Last Butterfly

"I've created a way to feel a little safer in this world by doing this work," Price said in the film.

"It's the dream of a teacher to affect your student's lives," Landau added, "and hope that the world will become a better place."

To learn more go to www.notthelastbutterfly.com.  

Check out the trailer for "Not the Last Butterfly," which was recently screened in New York City:

AND HERE ARE SOME OF THE PEOPLE AND PLACES THE BUTTERFLY PROJECT HAS TOUCHED

1. Holocaust survivor Gerhard Maschkowski paints the ID number he had as a boy at a concentration camp on a butterfly.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

2. Colegio Israelita de Mexico, Mexico City.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project


3. German-Polish border, 2012 Woodstock Poland Festival.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

4. Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds, Pearl River, N.Y.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

5. Jewish Community Center of Poland.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

6. Kibbutz Ruhama in Sha'ar HaNegev, Israel.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

7. Lauder Morasha School, Warsaw, Poland.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

8. Levine Jewish Community Center, Charlotte, N.C.

The Butterfly Project Co-Founder and Executive Director Cheryl Rattner Price in front of a sculpture and butterfly installation at the Levine Jewish Community Center in Charlotte, N.C.
The Butterfly Project Co-Founder and Executive Director Cheryl Rattner Price in front of a sculpture and butterfly installation at the Levine Jewish Community Center in Charlotte, N.C. Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

9. Manhattan Jewish Community Center in New York City.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

10. Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

11. National WWII Museum, New Orleans, La.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

12. POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto in Poland.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

13. San Diego High School of Science and Technology.

Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler (center) with students at San Diego High School of Science and Technology in front of one of its five butterfly installations.
Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler (center) with students at San Diego High School of Science and Technology in front of one of its five butterfly installations. Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

14. San Diego Jewish Academy.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

15. Seacrest Village Retirement Communities, Encinitas, Calif.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

16. St. John's Academy, Encinitas, Calif.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

17. Students in Montevideo, Uruguay, created a large butterfly mural.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

18. Torrey Hills Center, San Diego, Calif.

Students from 10 different schools came together to create an installation with 2,000 butterflies at the Torrey Hills Center in San Diego. 
Students from 10 different schools came together to create an installation with 2,000 butterflies at the Torrey Hills Center in San Diego.  Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

19. Tucson Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

20. University of Arizona Hillel, Tucson, Ariz.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

21. Children holding butterflies they painted for The Butterfly Project.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
Courtesy of The Butterfly Project

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