Those who doubt how much Holocaust awareness will be raised by the mandate to teach about the Holocaust and genocide in Rhode Island’s middle and secondary schools should familiarize themselves with the Holocaust Stamps Project.
Massachusetts had no such mandate in the 2008-09 school year, when the seed to start what became the Holocaust Stamps Project was germinated in the classroom of then-fifth-grade teacher Charlotte Sheer at the Foxboro Regional Charter School. (Massachusetts still lacks such a mandate. Two bills are awaiting action to move them toward a vote in the state Legislature.)
But the absence of a law requiring Holocaust education didn’t deter Sheer’s determination to enlighten her young students. After they read Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars,” an historical-fiction novel set in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1942, the students asked some probing questions about the Holocaust – including “How could that happen?” and “How many is 6 million?” – and an idea soon took shape.
“I shared with these 10 and 11 year olds that it was not only Jewish people who were in danger. Anyone whose skin color, beliefs or culture wasn’t part of the Aryan way, or who had some form of disability, was in danger, bringing the total number of targeted victims closer to 11 million,” Sheer said in an interview. “In our culturally diverse classroom, a seed of awareness was planted.
“With a number so unfathomable [11 million], I challenged the class to try collecting one postage stamp for every person who perished in the Holocaust. Why stamps? They’re small and accessible. The intent was to use stamps as a symbol for something of value being discarded, as millions of people’s lives were thrown away by the Nazis.
“By June that year , they’d struggled to amass about 25,000 stamps. The children were just beginning to sense the enormity of the number 11 million.”
But that was just the start.
Sheer’s idea developed into the Holocaust Stamps Project, and became a regular component of the school’s Community Service Learning program.
Sheer said the project set a goal of collecting 11 million stamps 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 includes the 1.5 million children who were Holocaust victims.
The project took off, and 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 chores after Sheer retired, were inundated with donations. Stamps poured in from across the globe, and the goal of collecting 11 million stamps, once considered daunting or even impossible, was reached before Yom Kippur in 2017.
The project also produced 18 collages made from the stamps, each depicting moments and people from the Holocaust. These, along with the stamps, have since found a permanent home at the American Philatelic Society’s center, in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.
The project sent the message that Holocaust education can serve as a powerful weapon against the rising tide of anti-Semitism and Holocaust-related ignorance, which has spawned such incidents as the use of the name of the notorious Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz as a term to call football plays – as the Duxbury High School team, in Massachusetts, had reportedly done for years until the story broke in the media in March, which led to the firing of its longtime football coach.
Holocaust education won’t end all ignorance, but in raising awareness about the genocide, it can help send a message that anti-Semitism and use of Nazi symbols is unacceptable.
In addition, a strong education about the Holocaust can lead to people reaching out to help in unexpected ways.
That happened to me several years ago, in 2015, when, after writing extensively about the stamps project, at The Sun Chronicle, of Attleboro, where I had worked since 1989, I got a call from a woman in Vermont. Alice Dulude said her husband Bill, a retired Attleboro firefighter and stamp collector, bought a huge box of stamps at a show, and they thought it’d make a good donation for the stamps project.
Not long after her call, her son, Bill Dulude Jr., dropped off the box to me, and I got it to Sheer, who was ecstatic with the more than 60,000 stamps.
That gift still resonates with me, because it shows what the power of education can do to make people understand the horror of the Holocaust.
LARRY KESSLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at larrytheklineup.blogspot.com.