By Sara Appel-Lennon
Jewish American Heritage Month is celebrated across the nation to recognize Jewish American achievements ever since Jewish people immigrated to America 350 years ago. It is celebrated in May to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day on May 5 — the day we remember the 6 million Jews murdered in Europe under Hitler’s command between 1933 to 1945.
This year, in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, Union Bank and KPBS recognized Marjorie Morrison and Rose and Max Schindler as local Jewish heroes.
Morrison started PsychArmor Institute, the only national nonprofit organization using free online classes to educate nonmilitary Americans about military culture. PsychArmor also provides medical, mental health, employment, and financial resources for veterans.
Del Cerro residents, Rose and Max Schindler were honored for speaking to groups about their experiences as Holocaust survivors and for starting the New Life Club, an organization for the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust that has members who are residents of Del Cerro and La Mesa.
Because of their painful past, the Schindlers remained silent about their Holocaust experiences for 30 years. The New Life Club was a way to come out and share their experiences.
“I did not readily admit I was a Holocaust survivor,” said Max.
“Never again is our motto,” said Rose. “A lot of people don’t know about the Holocaust. We need to tell our story so the world doesn’t forget.”
Whenever the couple are asked to speak publicly about their experiences, Max tells his audiences to re-tell the stories because “the Holocaust shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Max and Rose were both teenagers when the Nazis rounded them up. Max’s father offered the SS officer a suitcase full of valuable office products so he and his two sons could stay together. In return, they were given a choice to go to a work camp or a ghetto. His father chose for all three to go to the work camp since they would surely die in the ghetto. Max survived six concentration camps from 1942-1946.
Rose was sent to a work camp in 1944. When an inmate asked Rose her age, she told him she was 14. The inmate urged her to say she was 18 so she would be sent to a work camp instead of the gas chambers.
The Schindlers met in England after World War II, thanks to Leonard Montefiore, who paid the English government to transfer 1,000 orphan kids there after the war. Rose and Max were the first Holocaust survivors in the group to get married. Montefiore walked her down the aisle as her father would have, if he were still alive.
In 1951, they arrived in New York with less than $50 and lived in a bug-infested hotel for five years. On the third day they arrived, Rose started working as a seamstress in the Garment District. Max worked in the insurance business and held part-time jobs on weekends. He visited San Diego to check the job market, never returned to New York, and asked Rose to join him.
In the early 1950s, the Schindlers started the New Life Club to meet other Holocaust survivors and remember their families. The club built a memorial wall in front of the La Jolla Jewish Community Center (JCC) and hosts an annual memorial service.
The Butterfly Project
To educate about the Holocaust, the Schindlers schedule daily talks at schools, colleges, churches, military bases and other organizations. After their presentations, they paint ceramic butterflies with their audience as part of The Butterfly Project, started by former San Diego Jewish Academy teacher Jan Landau and artist in residence, Cheryl Rattner Price.
Rattner Price said that The Butterfly Project uses art and education as a call-to-action to remember the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust by inviting participants to paint the ceramic butterflies and display them.
“I work with a very serious topic, the Holocaust. I get to be creative and playful and help the world to feel more connected,” she said.
The goal is to have 1.5 million painted ceramic butterflies posted on buildings all over the world.
The idea emerged from its cocoon after Landau saw the documentary film, “Paper Clips” by Joe Fab, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker. The film takes place in Whitwell, Tennessee, a primarily white Christian town of 1,600 people. Middle school principal, Linda Hooper, wanted to teach her students about the Holocaust. The students discovered Norwegians wore a paper clip on their shirt collar as a silent protest against the Nazis during the war. Their teacher asked them to write letters asking people to send a paper clip to symbolize each person who the Nazis murdered. The goal was to collect 6 million paper clips. They collected 30 million paper clips; 11 million are stored in an old German railway car in front of the school as a memorial. The project received world acclaim because of Fab’s film and a book written about it in Germany.
Another inspiration for Landau was a poem, “The Butterfly,” written by Pavel Friedmann in the Terezin concentration camp in 1942. It is about no butterflies living in the ghetto. This was the last concentration camp where Max Schindler stayed, and where Holocaust survivor and Butterfly Project volunteer, Ela Weissberger, 86, created art and sang in a children’s opera as a form of protest.
The Butterfly Project has been active in San Diego for 10 years and in over 300 schools. In 2012, Rattner Price took The Butterfly Project to Poland. In keeping with each butterfly representing compassion for each child killed, Rattner Price and her team hand-carried the ceramic butterflies in suitcases instead of shipping them.
Once in Krakow, Poland, she noticed a JCC located 60 kilometers from the Auschwitz concentration camp. She ran into the building and shared the butterfly story. The Jewish Polish community embraced it. As a result, Rattner Price arranged for ceramic butterflies to be manufactured in Poland.
Her team also travelled to a bomb shelter in Sderot, Israel. A 7-year-old girl stopped speaking due to trauma from a barrage of daily rockets. She started speaking only after painting a ceramic butterfly.
Again, The Butterfly Project expanded its wings when Rattner Price and Fab collaborated on a new documentary film, “Not the Last Butterfly.” Its initial screening took place this year on May 4 at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The audience gave a standing ovation, and requested a second screening the following day for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It took four years, a camera crew of 10 people, and 200 hours of footage to make this film. “I feel like it’s my third child,” said Rattner Price.
Repairing the world is a core value for Jewish people. Celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month gives our nation a chance to recognize Jewish Americans who repair the world by their achievements, leaving a beautiful legacy for future generations.
It’s a race against time for the Schindlers. As Max said, “There aren’t enough survivors to go out and speak.” Endeavors like Ruth and Max speaking about their Holocaust experiences, The Butterfly Project, and the film, “Not the Last Butterfly,” continue to educate about the Holocaust and teach tolerance long after Holocaust survivors no longer can.
[Author’s Note: New research shows the Nazis tortured and murdered more than 20 million people under Hitler’s command. Including soldiers, 70 million people died during World War II. For more information about The Butterfly Project visit thebutterflyprojectnow.org.]
—Sara Appel-Lennon is a freelance writer and former professional clown. Visit her website at sara-appel-lennon.vpweb.com.