Soda-can tabs: a Holocaust memorial

I recently returned from a trip to Pittsburgh, my old hometown. In addition to seeing family and old friends, I took time to visit — and study up on — the city’s Holocaust Memorial.
It’s unique not only because of its most unusual construction, but perhaps even more so because that construction resulted from the brainstorm of a teacher, the efforts of students (over a long enough period that some of those children had grown to adulthood by its completion) and the wisdom of the community: to place it right where it originated and therefore belongs — on the grounds of the city’s largest Jewish day school.
Most folks have heard of the Paper Clips project, which began in 1998 in a grade school in a small Tennessee town and culminated in an incredible children’s Holocaust memorial. But it was actually two years earlier when Bill Walter — now retired, but then an eighth-grade history teacher at Community Day School — was asking himself similar questions: How can students understand the enormity of the Holocaust, the concept of dehumanization and death for 6 million Jews (here, like themselves and their families)? And — how can kids conceive of 6 million anything? His creative idea was to amass pop-tabs from cans, because they had originated in Pittsburgh. Then the project was cleverly dubbed “Keeping Tabs.”
Soon tabs began pouring in, and the numbers came alive: Each one counted represented a real human being. But the next question was, what to do with all the tabs? By then, the whole community was involved, and not just in the amassing; artists and architects worked with student-generated ideas and came up with the answer.
In 2013, seven years after the original idea took root, a Sculpture (the word is always capitalized in Pittsburgh) arose where the tab collection started. It is a gigantic, six-sided Star of David, spanning 45 feet across, standing 7 feet tall in some sections, nine in others. It is built from 960 glass blocks, each of which contains 6,250 pop-tabs. Do the math: 960 times 6,250 equals 6 million.
Viewers walk through this construction, as I did, and are surrounded and towered over by tabs, all clearly visible in their encasements. Every once in a while, visitors are jolted — as I was — by a tab that is green, or red, or something other than the usual metallic gray. These are not-to-be-ignored visual reminders that the mass of humanity felled by German inhumanity was made up of individuals, each one different from all the rest.
The Sculpture is sited in an open, park-like setting where some rough-shaped concrete “benches” are provided, a place for individuals to sit and contemplate, or a gathering spot for those wanting to share their thoughts. Anyone can walk up to the Sculpture, and through it, at any time. While Community Day is in session, educational programs about the Holocaust are coupled with guided tours of the Sculpture from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for middle- and high-school students from throughout the greater Pittsburgh area. Partnering with the school in this extended programming is the Holocaust Center of the local Jewish Federation.
I also visited that Holocaust Center while I was in the city. This used to be located in the Jewish Community Center — as was ours in Dallas — but it needed bigger quarters. Now, even those — located in a large building in an easily accessible grouping of retail and service businesses, with ample parking available — are too small. Its director, Lauren Bairnsfather, told me that students coming for its own educational and creative programs practically spill out its single door; the facility is basically two large rooms, but somehow manages to accommodate several not–too-large exhibits. I hope there will soon be another move, to an even larger place.
But in the meantime, all those students get to see the Sculpture, to walk through its glass walls and understand what “keeping tabs” really means.

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