What does six million look like? While one inquisitive student learning about the horrors of the Holocaust had asked a seemingly straightforward question, for her teacher the answer was far from simple.
Laura Oram, a history teacher at The Lakes School in Windermere, Cumbria, had tasked her pupils with designing a meaningful memorial to the Jews killed at the hands of Nazi persecution during the Second World War, having been inspired by a visit from Holocaust survivor Arek Hersh.
He was one of 732 displaced children, known collectively as “The Boys”, who were resettled in the UK in 1945.
Arek and 299 others were given a new home on the Calgarth Estate in the Lake District, a wartime housing scheme built for aviation workers, where The Lakes School now resides.
As they mulled over finding the solution, the 29-year-old teacher and her student, Bliss, also known as “B”, came up with the idea of collecting buttons.
Having discovered a similar project, 6 million +, had already been devised more than ten years ago, they altered the focus to reflect the 1.5 million children who were murdered.
Since launching in September, the project – known as B’s Buttons – has fired the imagination of people around the globe and collected more than 300,000 buttons, with contributions coming from the US, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, France and the UK.
“When one of our students asked what six million looked like, I didn’t have an answer,” explains Laura. “It’s difficult even for adults to conceptualise. You can imagine 30,000 people in a football stadium, but beyond that is tricky.
“B came up with the idea of buttons and perceptively noted that they are all different shapes and sizes, just like the children they represent.
“When we started, I assumed we would collect some buttons and do something small. But when I put the post on Facebook, it just took off. All these buttons started arriving.”
Poignantly, many contributors include letters detailing how they or their close relative survived the Holocaust.
One package contained the buttons taken from the coat of a young child sent on the Kindertransport.
Trevor Avery, director of the Lake District Holocaust Project, who has been assisting the school in their efforts, described the letters as “moving and incredible”.
He said: “One daughter of a Holocaust survivor decided to send one of her mum’s buttons.
“Another, whose mother was one of the youngest to arrive at Windermere aged just four, sent all her little buttons in.
“There was also a woman from the US who sent all her father’s buttons from his army tunic and Sandhurst College sent a beautiful collection, a button from every regiment that has ever passed through.
“My mother died four years ago and we’ve even contributed her button collection. A lot of people have put their emotions and heart into this.”
In the wake of February’s deadly mass shooting at a secondary school, a group in Parkland, Florida collected 14,738 buttons – a testimony, says Avery, to how B’s Buttons has touched people around the world and is seen as “a positive commemoration to the children who lost their lives and a determination to remember them.”
The venture was given another boost in recent months thanks to Abigail Mann, a solicitor from St Albans, who heard about the project and wanted to help spread the word to the Jewish community around the UK.
Her efforts have helped set up button collections at museums, schools and synagogues, including at The Wiener Library and The Radlett Centre.
Now the great task of counting the buttons lies ahead, with Bushey United Synagogue, Stanmore and Canons Park Synagogue and Thames Valley Limmud among those planning counts in the weeks ahead.
The idea also inspired mum-of-three Gabi Rolfe, from Bushey, to get a collection started at Hertsmere Jewish Primary School, in Radlett, which her children attend.
“I found it even more poignant that this was started by children at a non-Jewish school, who wanted to do everything they could to honour the Jewish children who were murdered.
“Because the project is so visual, the children can better understand the enormity of what happened during the Holocaust. It’s just an amazing idea.”
Andy Cunningham, headteacher at The Lakes School, said the school had been “overwhelmed” by how the project has taken root around the world and wanted to thank those who had donated buttons in helping to “realise a young person’s vision”.
He added: “B’s buttons is an amazing project and it’s true to say that we have been overwhelmed by the public response.
“Buttons have been arriving in our school from far and wide and we have been touched by some of the personal messages from people moved by the project.”
The hope is that once 1.5 million buttons are collected, they will be turned into a permanent Holocaust memorial sited on the school grounds, next to a sapling brought from Auschwitz that was planted in the school gardens last year.
You can donate your buttons at The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide in Russell Square, London and the Radlett Centre, Aldenham Avenue, Radlett.