A small town with a big pop-top memorial

I recently wrote about the unusual Holocaust memorial in Pittsburgh — 6 million pop-tops now encased in a massive, walk-through, Star-of David-shaped construction of glass blocks. I’m proud of my home city for this, because pop-tops were first used on the beer cans of its local Iron City brewery, a logical and unique medium of remembrance. Or so I thought. But I’ve learned: not so unique, after all.
Take a mental trip with me to Mahomet, Illinois, a very small town out on the prairie. Only 10 miles from Champaign, site of the University of Illinois, but another world. Now, thanks to a couple of Dallas readers, I’ve learned that this little town also chose pop-tops, and for the same purpose, more than 20 years ago.
It was back in 1997 that Kevin Daugherty, social studies teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High, popped the top off a Coke can and realized its classroom value. He’d been mulling over how to get his students to understand the magnitude of the Holocaust. “It’s not that a pop-top can represent a human being,” he said. “But, collected together, they could give some idea of the numbers who perished.”
Word of the project got out fast, and the school’s 650 students began receiving them from across the country. People who didn’t drink canned beverages sent pop-tops from cans of tuna and pet foods. Mahomet’s population then was less than 4,000 (it has more than doubled in the years since) and was anything but diverse. Daugherty realized that this collection could have a further use: “We have to work at teaching tolerance for others,” he said, “because we have so few ‘others’ here.”
So, after the initial goal of 6 million tops was reached, the collecting went on — to represent, in addition to Jews, the homosexuals, handicapped, disabled and political prisoners all put to death by the Nazis.
Child survivor Edith Mozes Kor, now 84 — who with her sister Miriam had been part of Mengele’s grotesque experiments on twins at Auschwitz — came twice to Mahomet from her Indiana home to speak about the Holocaust. Her first visit was what sparked the collection. At the second, there was a special ceremony: All the pop-tops had been counted as received and stored in bags of 20,000 each — the number of people killed per day as Nazi extermination reached its height.
Daugherty’s students brought those bags to the gym of Mahomet Senior High and dumped their contents into one huge pile in the center. The tops were then sold to a recycler, and the thousands of dollars received were given to Kor for her organization, CANDLES: Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors. I learned her story while learning about Mahomet.
Edith Kor’s family was deported from their longtime home in Romania to Auschwitz in 1944, when she and her twin sister were 10 years old. She lost her parents and two other siblings there and, as she told the Mahomet students, this is where she also lost a normal childhood. Almost all of Auschwitz’ 180 child survivors were twins who had lived through the quasi-medical ordeals inflicted on an original 1,500 sets of young Jews.
Kor was first placed in a Polish orphanage, then returned to Romania with an old family friend. In 1950, she traveled to Israel, where she served in the army, and there met and married Michael Kor, a U.S. citizen, and went home with him to Indiana, becoming a citizen herself in 1965. From Kor and CANDLES came the Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute.
Now, I beg you: Do not say, “Enough already about the Holocaust.” There is never enough. We Jews are among those “others” who must get our “others” — the American majority — to know us and our history, in thoroughly non-Jewish places like Mahomet, Illinois, where we do not live ourselves. Only then can good things happen. Only good things can happen then.

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