The Holocaust Stamps Project at the Foxboro Regional Charter School was the brainchild of then-teacher Charlotte Sheer in 2009 with the goal of collecting 11 million stamps in memory of all Holocaust victims, not just the 6 million Jews who perished.
At least another 5 million non-Jews — including non-Aryans, gays, the disabled, Gypsies, political dissidents, Resistance fighters and non-Jews caught helping or defending a Jewish person — were killed. Just how many more is the subject of debate.
In light of the recent rise in white supremacists and neo-Nazis, the project’s relevance remains stronger than ever in terms of education about the consequences of racism. To learn more about the project’s origins and future, an email interview was conducted with Sheer, who has stayed involved since her retirement.
The interview is being published at this time as Holocaust victims will be remembered during many services on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, the solemn Jewish fast day of reflection, which this year will run 24-plus hours, starting on the eve of Sept. 29:
1. For those unaware of the project, summarize how and why it got started.
“One of the books provided for me to read with my fifth-grade students was “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, an historical fiction novel set in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1942. However, once the story-related discussions ended, so did most interest in the facts behind it.
“Then, in 2009, I decided to keep a written list with some of the important story-related questions and comments the children raised. “How could that happen?” “How many is 6 million?” “Jesus should have been able to help.” Their words began to inform my teaching.
“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. In our culturally diverse classroom, a seed of awareness was planted.
“With a number so unfathomable, 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 11,000,000.
“Soon it developed into the Holocaust Stamps Project and became a regular component of the school’s Community Service Learning program. In the nine years since it began, students in kindergarten through grade 12 have had the opportunity to participate by donating, trimming and counting stamps or working on original, stamps-based collage artworks depicting events and effects of the Holocaust.”
2. About how many Holocaust survivors were there and how many remain alive today?
Sheer reports that one online source said there were about 900,000 survivors in 1945, depending on how “Holocaust survivor” is defined.
An article by the International March of the Living Organization on Feb. 2, 2016 had this to say about survivors:
“World War II ended nearly 70 years ago. Even accounting for those who lived through the war as opposed to having directly suffered its most terrible expressions, the number of survivors still alive today across the world is probably in the low hundreds of thousands, and dwindling.”
To get a better idea of how hard it is to attach a number to survivors, Sheer received this response from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington:
“An accurate statistic of the number of Holocaust survivors still alive is very difficult to come by. Different studies using different definitions of “Holocaust survivor” and different sampling methods have returned different results. The museum has not conducted its own study.”
3. The students are devoted to the stamps project. How have you maintained their enthusiasm?
“The momentum of the project has largely been driven by the interest of students involved with it. In the first three years, prior to my retirement, the greatest enthusiasm came from dozens of fifth-grade students. As word spread about the project, growing numbers of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade children would seek permission from their teachers to come to my classroom during their student life class time to work with the stamps.
“After June 2012, student life adviser Jamie Droste voluntarily took over leadership of the project, and there was a shift to more of a middle school and high school connection. Droste and several classroom teachers began facilitating small groups who trimmed and counted stamps, or designed and created new collages.
“The project came full circle when a kindergarten teacher asked how she could get her 5-year olds involved. Between October 2015 and May, 2016 the children not only trimmed and counted hundreds of stamps, but, with the help of several high school students, the youngest project participants completed their own stamps collage, “Different People-One World Community.”
4. The Boston Holocaust Memorial was damaged by vandals twice over the summer. Does that add a sense of urgency to the educational aspects of the project?
“What happened in Boston definitely underscores the crucial need for more education on the topics of the Holocaust: intolerance, lack of acceptance and the prevalence of disrespect.
Massachusetts is not one of the eight states in the country that requires the Holocaust and genocide be taught as part of the public schools’ curriculum in middle and high school. Perhaps what happened at the Holocaust Memorial in Boston should be the wake-up call that the time has come to consider such legislation in the Bay State.”
5. How much longer do you anticipate the project continuing?
The 11 million goal will be reached shortly, Sheer wrote in an update as 650 students counted 36,408 stamps as a 9/11 service project to bring the total to 10,800,328 stamps, leaving 199,672 to go. Sheer adds that the school has those stamps already, and so is no longer accepting additional stamps.