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Butterflies of Brundibar: In poignant ceremony, Cape Cod students unveil mural honoring child victims of the Holocaust

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Jennette Barnes
Amelia Stoots, Jojo Sader and Marz Messina unveiled a student-painted scene based on the children's opera Brundibar. It's part of a larger mural dedicated to remembering and honoring victims of the Holocaust, especially children. They took part in a ceremony at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School on May 10.

In front of an audience of classmates and families, two seventh graders at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School are standing at a podium, singing a solemn song in Hebrew.

On the wall behind them is a mural in two parts.

At the top, ceramic butterflies have been installed — each painted by a student in remembrance of a child who died in the Holocaust.

The bottom is a scene, concealed behind paper until later in the ceremony.

Learning about the Holocaust — and its social justice lessons for today’s world — has become part of the seventh-grade experience at Lighthouse. The school in East Harwich is participating in The Butterfly Project, a national Holocaust education program.

The Butterfly Project uses the arts and the making of memorials to honor the 1.5 million children who perished.

After four years with the project, Lighthouse students unveiled a new mural last week.

Jennette Barnes
Painted ceramic butterflies, set as musical notes from the children's opera Brundibar, are visible at the top portion of a new mural at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in memory of victims of the Holocaust. Below, a painting is covered with paper prior to the unveiling.

For students this age, the lesson about how to prevent future atrocities is that every person has the power to make a difference, “whether that's a difference to one person or an entire nation,” says social studies teacher Daniella Garran.

“We really strive to impart to the students the importance that their actions are potentially life saving for others,” she says.

For the top part of the mural, the students created an oversized music staff and arranged the butterflies as notes.

The notes come from the finale of the children’s opera Brundibar.

It’s the story of a brother and sister who overcome a villain. He stole money they earned to buy milk for their sick mother.

Garran tells the audience the finale is a celebration of children winning a victory over tyranny and oppression.

Jennette Barnes
A detail from the new mural at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School shows the main characters in Brundibar: a brother and sister and the villain of the story.

“However, the last words of the opera warn about the possibility of tyranny returning if we are not vigilant,” she says. “One need not look any further than the nightly news for examples of how tyranny continues to rear its ugly head in our world.”

Brundibar was written by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krasa shortly before the Nazis sent him to a concentration camp in the town of Terezin, in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Children performed the opera at Terezin 55 times.

One of those children was Holocaust survivor Michael Guenbaum. Joining the mural dedication by Zoom, he says the children in the story defeated a man who resembled, and symbolized, Hitler.

“The opera is very joyful, very uplifting, has songs that children could understand,” he says. “And the audience left the theater singing those songs to themselves. The message of the opera is clear: Band together, and you will defeat a bully.”

Student Ryan Kraics of Barnstable says a big part of the message is treating everyone with kindness.

“No matter what they look like, what they sound like, who they are, just — they are who they are,” he says. “They cannot change that.”

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Jennette Barnes
Staff and students at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School stand with a new mural designed to remember and honor victims of the Holocaust.

The Nazis used Terezin as a propaganda tool. It was spruced up for visitors to fool the outside world into thinking the living conditions were acceptable.

In reality, it became a stopover on the way to Auschwitz.

Almost all of the children who came through Terezin were murdered.

At one point in the ceremony, Lighthouse student Kayden Kaser performs a song she wrote, set to a Disney tune, about another child victim of the Holocaust, Anne Frank.

“I recall the stories that I see in my diary / And no one knows how deep it goes,” she sings.

The song ends with a warning: “If we fail there’s just no telling how far they’ll go.”

The audience breaks into cheers and applause.

Other speakers remind the students that antisemitic hate is not just a thing of the past.

Peggy Shukur, deputy regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England office, points to an incident earlier this month, when spectators at a Franklin High School baseball game used slurs against the opposing team.

And state Sen. Becca Rausch asks students and families to put what they’ve learned into practice.

“Please commit, every day, to being an upstander, to standing up and speaking out against hatred anywhere and everywhere that you see it,” she says.

Finally, as a teacher plays the finale of Brundibar, students tear away the paper to reveal the painting at the lower portion of the mural.

Painted by student artists, it depicts a village scene from Brundibar and the opera’s main characters.

The unveiling is the culmination of four years of work.

But only the mural is finished; for these and future students, teaching about the Holocaust will go on.