By Harriet P. Gross
In 2005, the United Nations declared Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day marking the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. Nine years later, I would like to introduce you to our nation’s newest — and perhaps its most unusual — Holocaust memorial.
“Keeping Tabs” is a massive sculpture in a new park on the campus of Community Day, a Solomon Schechter School in Pittsburgh, Pa. My son is on its staff and when I visited early last year, he took me to view the site. Even then, while it was still under construction, the sheer size took my breath away.
And now it is finished. Standing 9 feet high, it consists of 960 massive glass blocks stacked and sheathed in stabilizing steel arranged in the shape of a Magen David. Inside each block: 6,250 pop top can tabs. Do the math: multiplied, the two numbers total six million.
You have probably heard of the school children in a small Tennessee town who collected six million paper clips as a way to comprehend the Holocaust as depicted in the 2004 documentary “Paper Clips.” The Pittsburgh project involved many more students in a much larger venue and it took a long, long time to complete. The project began with Community Day’s social studies teacher Bill Walter who got the idea back in 1996, blossoming into a dream that consumed the whole school and its community. In 2002, there was a student design contest; one of the children on the winning team is in medical school today.
Through all those years, children and adults alike collected pop top tabs. Why these? Because Pittsburgh is their home! Pull tabs were developed by Alcoa Aluminum back in 1962 and first used by the local Iron City Brewery on its beer cans. For a long time these tabs could be found only in Western Pennsylvania, until the idea caught on and spread — as did the zeal to collect six million of them for Community Day.
At the very beginning, this project’s intention was the same as the paper clip one: to tangibly see what six million of something looks like as a way to visualize the human scope of the Holocaust. But after five years, fish tanks in the classroom where it all began were overflowing with tabs and Head of School Avi Baran Munro made the decision that something permanent had to be done with them.
“Each one of these tabs represents a life, an important life,” Munro said. “Once you’ve attached this meaning to them, you can’t throw them out. That would be so wrong.”
Because of this, an artist was brought in to work with students on design concepts. Once the student choice had been made, an architect took over to develop the winning idea into something permanent.
From first idea to finished sculpture: almost 18 years — Chai! The cost: donations and grants amounted to $1 million, which includes actual construction, funds for maintenance of the monument and an educational endowment. “Keeping Tabs” will now become a central source of Holocaust study for all the city’s students and teachers.
Walter, the now-retired teacher who started everything, said this at the recent dedication of the finished product: “We counted so many of [the tabs]. We counted them for years, and after a while it seems routine. But then you spot one a little different — an odd color, or size. It’s unique, just like they were, and it hits you all over again: This represents somebody who died.”
Now visitors can walk around this massive star, see those tabs, and remember.
My thanks to Robert Zulio (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) and Megan Harris (Trib Total Media Pittsburgh) for their helpful reportage on the occasion of the dedication, and of course to my son, Sol B. Marcus, for my personal introduction to “Keeping Tabs.” I look forward to revisiting the now-finished site and taking my own star-walk this summer.