FALL RIVER, MASS (WPRI) — One button on its own means almost nothing.
But 1.5 million of them, or thousands arranged in artistic order, are conveying a powerful message about the Holocaust.
Stephan Ross became a teenager during his five years a Nazi concentration camp.
“I want you also to know that I lost my family,” he told a Bristol Community College crowd. “We were eight children, and I survived with one brother who was completely debilitated.”
Ross, who spurred the creation of the New England Holocaust Memorial, spoke at BCC in 2014 during a Holocaust presentation arranged by Professor Ron Weisberger.
“He talked about the fact, as many survivors do, that his survival was just an accident. Most of the people he was with at Auschwitz died,” Weisberger said. “He made an impact.”
That made him the perfect face for the “Portraits of Lost Childhood” exhibit, also known as the buttons project.
The goal to collect 1.5 million buttons is not an arbitrary number.
“The message is that one and a half million children were lost in the Holocaust,” Weisberger said. “And that is just a horrifying number.”
The other portrait was also made from craftily placed buttons collected from around the region and features someone who did not survive the Holocaust. Although Anne Frank did tell her story through her diary.
While Weisberger came up with the idea to collect the buttons, his colleague in the Art Department, Professor Marisa Millard, helped him decide what to do with them.
Millard said the small plastic circles of color presented a challenge along with a lesson in composition for her student volunteers.
But she said the impact of the finished portraits is a far greater lesson.
“To help people remember that this actually happened and it’s not just distant memory,” Millard said. “That these were real children, and being able to look into their eyes and get that sense is important.”
“We’re talking about real people, real families that were destroyed. Anywhere from infants to adolescents,” Weisberger said. “They’re here to say, this happened to us.”
Even after completing the portraits they have about 700,000 buttons left, and they’re still collecting to reach the goal.
Weisberger, who has boxes of buttons in his office, and several volunteers counting them, expects the rest to be part of another project with a similar message.
“Each individual button is one child who was murdered,” he said. “And we want people to remember so it won’t happen again.”