Butterflies emerge from Holocaust unit at PVRS
Pioneer Valley Regional School freshman Jasper Tobey hangs one of several decorated butterflies at Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory in Deerfield Wednesday, as classmates Colby Johnson and Ameilia Pelletier look on. The paper butterflies bore messages of hope, and were the culmination of a ninth grade Holocaust unit.
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Pioneer Valley Regional School freshmen Colby Johnson, Jasper Tobey, Elizabeth Sweeney, Ameilia Pelletier and Emma Langston hang paper butterflies at Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory in Deerfield Wednesday. The decorated butterflies bore messages of hope, and were the culmination of a ninth grade Holocaust unit.
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DEERFIELD — A new load of butterflies has emerged at the Magic Wings conservatory, but they came from a suitcase rather than cocoons.
On their wings were messages of hope and scenes of tranquility, drawn by the hands of the freshman class at Pioneer Valley Regional School.
The brightly colored paper insects were inspired by a very serious lesson taught in humanities and English classes.
The teens recently finished a month-long unit on World War II and the Holocaust. Though they’d touched on the subjects in previous years, they hadn’t studied them in such depth, and the students were shocked by what they learned.
“The reality of the Holocaust didn’t hit me until I took time to really think about it,” said freshman Elizabeth Sweeney.
Despite the atrocities committed by the Nazis, there were moments of compassion, humanity and kindness that shone through some of the darkest moments of human history, the teens learned.
“After watching ‘Schindler’s List,’ I realized how amazing some people were during the Holocaust, under such harsh times,” said Jasper Tobey.
Oscar Schindler, though a member of the Nazi party, is credited with saving the lives of about 1,200 Jews employed in his enamelware and ammunition factory. By the end of the war, Schindler had spent most of his fortune bribing Hitler’s SS officers and buying supplies for his workers.
The movie screening turned into an all-day affair at Pioneer, with teachers preparing their students for the film, and taking plenty of time to process what they’d seen afterward. Throughout their classrooms, 15 posters posed questions about the movie and what they learned from it, and the students silently walked from station to station, writing their answers below.
“The Holocaust brought out the best and worst in people at the same time,” said Emma Langston. “I cried a lot the day we watched the movie, and throughout the unit.”
Amid the horrors of the Holocaust, the students found hope. Though the captive Jews were marked for death, their spirits stayed strong. This was showcased in the book “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a collection of art and poetry penned by the child prisoners of the Terezin concentration camp. The titular poem was written by Pavel Friedman, who later died at the Auschwitz concentration camp. They also learned of the diversions the captives provided themselves through plays, performances and music.
The students also read the book “Night,” author Elie Wiesels’ account of his time with his father as prisoners in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. Wiesel was 16 when Buchenwald was liberated; his father didn’t make it, dying after a severe beating in the camp.
Langston said it was a very emotional read, so she’d prepare herself by reading ahead at home, so she’d have time to process things before the in-class reading. She wasn’t the only one who found herself getting choked up while reading the book.
“I even cried a couple times during class while reading ‘Night,’” admitted English teacher Victoria Blackmore.
“It was difficult to hear at times, but it deepened my sense of empathy toward others,” said Grace Hoisington. “The whole unit was really inspiring,”
Last week, the students visited the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, where six 54-foot-tall glass towers are engraved with numbers representing the millions of Jews killed by Hitler’s troops.
While they were there, the students interviewed passersby, asking them a single question: What color is empathy?
“A lot of people said ‘blue’ or ‘purple,’” recalled Colby Johnson.
The students said their unusual question got them some strange looks, but also started some thoughtful conversations about empathy once they explained the project.
“Once we started talking to people, they opened up, and started to talk about their thoughts on the Holocaust,” Sweeney said.
The interviews were recorded by the students and put together to air on Bernardston Northfield Community Television.
While the Holocaust ended nearly 70 years ago, the students were encouraged to apply the lessons they learned to the present.
“The goal with this unit was to learn about what happened in our history, but also to empower students to take action today with the insight they gained from learning about the stories of Oscar Schindler, Elie Weisel, Pavel Friedman and others during the time of the Holocaust,” said Blackmore.
Now that they understand what happens when bystanders look the other way while harassment gets out of hand, Blackmore hopes her students will do their best to speak out against the injustices they will encounter.
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