Teaching the Holocaust through art

When Audrey Nolte, the daugh­ter of Holocaust sur­vivors, speaks to stu­dents, one of the many high­lights of her pre­sen­ta­tion involves the sto­ry of her father’s pock­et watch, a gift from his father.

When Mrs. Nolte explains how a Nazi guard pur­pose­ful­ly stepped on it, break­ing the glass, stu­dents hear­ing the sto­ry feel the impact.

“Stories live on and sto­ries con­nect peo­ple,” said Riya Sembhi, an AP Art History stu­dent who recent­ly heard Mrs. Nolte’s mov­ing pre­sen­ta­tion. “That small pock­et watch she had lit­er­al­ly froze time in the midst of all that chaos.”

Quakertown Community High School art teacher Laurie Christine has had Mrs. Nolte, a for­mer QCSD librar­i­an, speak to her stu­dents for the last four years. The two edu­ca­tors are con­nect­ed through the Butterfly Project, which remem­bers the 1.5 mil­lion chil­dren killed dur­ing the Holocaust.

The Butterfly Project was start­ed by the Executive Director of the Holocaust Museum of Houston and two teach­ers. They put a call out to schools across the United States to make 1.5 mil­lion but­ter­flies, one for each child that lost their life in the Holocaust. As Mrs. Christine explained, though they reached their goal years ago they still encour­age the project as bul­ly­ing and racism remain issues in our soci­ety. Their inspi­ra­tion came from the book I nev­er saw anoth­er but­ter­fly, a col­lec­tion of art­work and poems from the chil­dren of the Terezin Concentration camp.

When artist/art edu­ca­tor, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was deport­ed to the camp from Austria with her hus­band, she made it her mis­sion to teach art to chil­dren in secret. Her teach­ings served as Art Therapy to the chil­dren of Terezin. Her hus­band was then deport­ed to Auschwitz and she vol­un­teered to go with him. Before she left Terezin, she gave one of her old­er stu­dents two suit­cas­es filled with 4,500 draw­ings and poems the chil­dren cre­at­ed. Those suit­cas­es were found a decade lat­er and this is where the art­work and writ­ings from the book I nev­er saw anoth­er but­ter­fly came from.

When Mrs. Christine learned that Mrs. Nolte had taught about the book dur­ing her years in QCSD, she invit­ed her to share her fam­i­ly’s sto­ry with her stu­dents. “I am so grate­ful to her,” Mrs. Christine said. “She is an incred­i­ble lady and has inspired so many stu­dents, and me too!”

As an assign­ment, each of Mrs. Christine’s stu­dents receives a poem from the book and then cre­ate a but­ter­fly for the child of Terezin who wrote it. “They can incor­po­rate imagery from the poem or sim­ply use shape, line and pat­tern to cre­ate their but­ter­fly,” she said. Each year at the District Art Show, “peo­ple from the com­mu­ni­ty are in awe with the project and the sto­ry behind it.”

AP Art stu­dent Brianna White said that learn­ing the num­ber of chil­dren who died “is ter­ri­bly impact­ful” but hav­ing the abil­i­ty to hear Mrs. Nolte’s sto­ries was “inspir­ing.”

When she explained the his­to­ry of the pock­et watch to stu­dents, Mrs. Nolte said her father told her, “My wish is that you’ll do some­thing impor­tant.”

Which is sim­i­lar to her words for stu­dents. “There will be times you can’t pay any­one back but you can pay it for­ward,” she said. “Be an upstander, not a bystander.”