“I pray that these never end,
“The sand and the sea,
“The rush of the waters,
“The light of the heavens,
“The prayer of the heart.”
– “A Walk to Caesarea” (also known as “Eli, Eli”), written by Hannah Szenes, who was killed in 1944 after refusing to give details about her mission to rescue Hungarian Jews from deportation to Auschwitz.
The Holocaust Stamps Project, undertaken by students at the Foxboro Regional Charter School, has always embodied the role of education in keeping history alive. That’s become even more important as debate heats up nationwide over whether to take down statues and memorials that have been deemed uncomfortable or offensive by some.
In that context, the Holocaust Stamps Project’s ability to promote understanding of how hatred and anti-Semitism led to the state-sanctioned genocide of religious, cultural and ethnic groups in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s has a vital role to play in ensuring that the Holocaust’s atrocities are never forgotten. That’s especially true as more aging Holocaust victims die each day, which has increasingly made preserving the Holocaust’s memories the responsibility of the victims’ children and grandchildren.
The Holocaust Stamps Project, for those unfamiliar with it, was the brainchild of Charlotte Sheer, who taught at the Foxboro school before retiring. Sheer, now 69 and living in Plymouth, Massachusetts, started the project in 2009 when her fifth-grade class began collecting stamps after reading the best-selling children’s book “Number the Stars,” by Lois Lowry. The book tells the story of a Danish girl who helps smuggle Jewish families out of German-occupied Denmark during World War II.
The project soon took off, and between 2009 and 2017 it reached heights unimagined in its early days. Sheer and a fellow teacher at the Foxboro school, Jamie Droste, who took over the project’s day-to-day duties after Sheer retired, soon were inundated with stamp donations. Stamps poured into the school from across the globe, and the goal of collecting 11 million stamps, once considered daunting, was finally reached before Yom Kippur in 2017.
Eleven million stamps was chosen as a goal for the project, Sheer explained, to represent the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust as well as the 5 million people from 21 European countries who were slaughtered as part of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” The 11 million dead includes the 1.5 million children who were Holocaust victims. The project produced 18 collages made from the stamps, each depicting moments and people of the Holocaust.
I last wrote about the project in the fall of 2019, to report that the stamps had found a new home at the American Philatelic Society’s center in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Since that article appeared, all 11 million stamps and the collages have been transported to the center, and the exhibit has been planned and finalized.
In the April edition of The American Philatelist, Susan Mills reported that the exhibit will include additional components. Mills wrote that a committee developed a second goal of providing “irrefutable postal history” of the Holocaust by reaching out “to prominent Holocaust-era philatelists, including Justin Gordon, Keith Stupell and Ken Lawrence.”
Through those efforts, Mills wrote, the center has enhanced the original Holocaust Stamps Project with a postal history exhibit, which will complement the project’s goals of “remembrance, recognition and a present-day pledge to combat intolerance.”
The exhibit was supposed to open in June, but it has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. When it does open, it promises to be particularly powerful and relevant given the present-day discussions about the deep racial and ethnic divisions that persist in the United States. The project’s role in educating the public is also critical given the rise of Holocaust deniers, along with the worldwide resurgence in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes in general.
The project, is an excellent way to educate people about how and why the raw hatred that fueled the Holocaust can be destructive to society. It also demonstrates why Holocaust museums and memorials are important teaching tools, and why the Nazis’ death camps – including Dachau and Bergen-Belsen in Germany, and Auschwitz in Poland – must never be torn down.
The Holocaust Stamps Project was started to help youngsters become aware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and in its new home, the project will do the same thing for a much broader audience.
But don’t take my word for it; read the excerpts accompanying this column from just three of the many letters that were sent to the school by stamp donors. Those letters provide personal stories about some of the Holocaust’s victims – and if those don’t reduce you to tears, nothing will.
LARRY KESSLER (email@example.com) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.