In 2009, fifth-grade teacher Charlotte Sheer sat with her students at Foxborough Regional Charter School and began an enrichment activity to accompany their reading of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. Eight years later, the entire school completed the Holocaust Stamps Project, having collected more than 11 million postage stamps, one for each of the victims of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust.
In 2019, a decade after the Holocaust Stamps Project’s beginning, the 11 million stamps and material accompanying the project came to the American Philatelic Center, with the American Philatelic Society’s promise to Foxborough to memorialize it in an exhibit.
This summer, that promise is upheld with the completion of “A Philatelic Memorial of the Holocaust.”
About the Holocaust Stamps Project
“[It is] he who numbers the stars one by one.” This phrase, quoting Psalms 147, gave birth to the symbolic title of Lowry’s Number the Stars, a children’s book about a young Danish girl who helped smuggle Jewish families out of Nazi-occupied Denmark during WWII. It also birthed an idea for Foxborough Regional Charter School’s fifth grade classroom in 2009 – of honoring the millions of victims of the Holocaust, with a stamp for each life lost.
Charlotte Sheer, original organizer of the Holocaust Stamps Project, explained the choice of postage stamps:
“A seed of awareness was planted. With a number [of victims] so unfathomable, I challenged the class to try collecting one postage stamp for every person who perished in the Holocaust. Why stamps? They’re small and accessible.
“The intent was to use stamps as a symbol for something of value being discarded, as millions of people’s lives were thrown away by the Nazis.”
What began as a goal to collect 6 million stamps to represent the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, was revised to a goal of 11 million, representing “6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children, and 5 million others in 21 European countries … annihilated by Hitler’s ruthless regime.” The entire school, kindergarten through grade 12, became involved, as did volunteers in the Foxboro, Massachusetts, community. As word spread, donations of stamps came in from 48 states and 24 countries, from individuals, organizations, collectors, and non-collectors alike.
Over the course of the project, educators at Foxborough prepared civics and history lessons on the Holocaust and its impact, giving the students a deeper understanding of the project and importance of remembrance.
With final donations putting students over their goal of 11 million stamps in 2017, the question was “What next?” Two years later, the APS gave the answer, bringing the entire collection and all supplementary material to the American Philatelic Center to plan a permanent installation (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Eleven million stamps packed up at Foxborough Regional Charter School, 2019.
Figure 2. Construction of the timeline begins. Photos in the exhibit are courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Creating an exhibit
The Holocaust exhibit committee was formed in January 2020, led by Dr. Cathy Brachbill of the education department and comprised of staff and volunteers. While the main goal was to preserve the 11 million stamps and accompanying projects of the Holocaust Stamps Project, it became clear that with the resources of the APS and its collecting community, they could achieve something even more meaningful.
The Holocaust Stamps Project itself was a project of remembrance and recognition – the stamps collected were symbols of individuals, but were not attached to specific names or places. The American Philatelic Society, through its members and scholars who collect Holocaust-era postal history, could provide primary sources, covers and letters, names, dates and locations, adding an educational layer to the exhibit.
With these two purposes defined, the committee built an exhibit with four separate sections, named “A Philatelic Memorial of the Holocaust.” The exhibit documents through postal history the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice. It bears witness to individual victims of the Nazis, many of whom were killed in the concentration camps, through a single piece of paper that may be the only remaining evidence of their lives. These lessons are carried forward into the future, through the memorials built by nations, by individuals, and by those like the Foxborough students who remind the world, “Never again.”
Historical Perspective of the Holocaust
Exhibit visitors see first the “Historical Perspective of the Holocaust,” a timeline wall spanning from 1933 to 1945 (Figure 2). The timeline documents a selection of important events, from Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, early persecution of the Jews, rising tides of violence and deaths, and the liberation of prisoners. Contemporaneous postage stamps, postal artifacts, and photographs illustrate these events (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Above, an excerpt from the timeline. Below, official mail, dated September 6, 1943, was sent postage free from the criminal police administration of the Roma camp Lackenbach to a military registration office in Vienna. Courtesy of The Nazi Scourge.
Tracing the Unspeakable
As you turn the corner, the next section is “Tracing the Unspeakable.” On this wall, a large map (Figure 4) depicts a select number of death camps and ghettos in Europe where the Nazis conducted the “Final Solution” to eradicate all European Jews.
Figure 4. A map of selected camps and ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Mail to and from ghettos and concentration camps was sanctioned by the Nazis, with regulations and censorship. Their goal was to control prisoners and manage the perception of the outside world of what was actually occurring in the camps. “Tracing the Unspeakable” also shows reproductions of actual mail, each connected to a location on the map (Figure 5). Translations and explanations are shown.
Figure 5. Left, an application for a pair of shoes dated October 2, 1940. The form declares: I apply for a permit for a pair of shoes or leather for a pair of shoes. I certify expressly that I do not possess two or more pair of shoes. I understand that statements at variance from the truth are subject to punishment. Right, the photo depicts Jews in the Warsaw ghetto awaiting their turn in the soup kitchen, courtesy of Archiwum Dokumentacji Mechanicznej.
Stamps as Symbols of Remembrance
With a step to the left, visitors walk into post-liberation world history – specifically the memorials from countries around the world to honor the victims of the Holocaust and commemorate the anniversaries of liberation. “Stamps as Symbols of Remembrance” shows postage stamps and covers issued by countries after the Holocaust – just a portion of the many that have been issued in the last 75 years (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Left, the planning stages of “Symbols of Remembrance.” Right, Austria Scott B174, depicting Austria as a victim of Nazi Germany.
The Holocaust Stamps Project
In the final section of the exhibit, visitors are in present day, witnessing the efforts of Foxborough students to make a current promise of remembrance. The 11 million stamps collected in the Holocaust Stamps Project are housed within the confines of a simulated prison, each symbolically representing a victim of the Holocaust (Figure 7).
Figure 7. The 11 million stamps collected by students are inside a “barbed wire” prison.
A selection of stamp art collages designed and created by the students are shown on the far wall (Figure 8). Each collage represents a different story of the Holocaust, its victims and survivors.
Figure 8. Stamp artwork depicts events and people of the Holocaust, including book burnings, Kristallnacht, and more.
The exhibit committee was blessed with far more material than could reasonably fit onto the exhibit walls. The exhibit has several additional sections, with more to come, for visitors to view.
Sandra Margolies donated a stamp art collage spelling “SHANGHAI” with postage stamps. Each stamp was carefully chosen to symbolize part of her mother Hanna’s experiences as a child living in the Shanghai Ghetto from 1939 to 1949. Sandra’s artwork and her mother’s story are displayed for visitors.
The Foxborough students made 18 collages total (the numerals of which in Hebrew spell chai, “life”). With insufficient wall space to show all 18, the collages that were not displayed are a part of the exhibit in miniature form.
While most of the exhibit shows reproductions of postcards, covers, and postage stamps, a future goal is to add original postal artifacts to the permanent display.
Finally, through the near-decade of collecting stamps, the Foxborough students received many letters from people around the world who heard of the project and were moved to contribute, or share their stories. Many stamp donations were paired with testimonials from Holocaust survivors, family members, and friends (Figure 9). These letters were all saved, and will be available digitally in the future.
Figure 9. The letter beginning “Last summer” came with a donation of stamps to Foxborough.
The American Philatelic Society is grateful to those who freely shared their stories, for the work of the Foxborough students, and for the responsibility of preserving and building upon this project towards education, empathy, and justice. We hope you will join us at the American Philatelic Center and bear witness to these stories with us.
Thanks and acknowledgments
The following people are owed thanks for their assistance to make this exhibit come to life.
To Justin Gordon, Ken Lawrence, and Keith Stupell, whose postal history expertise, published research, and philatelic donations made up the bulk of the philatelic material in the exhibit.
To Danny Spungen and Kiel Majewski of the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation.
To John McQueary II of State College Framing Company, Jay Mathieu of Mathieu Multimedia, and Bob Bowersox of Victorian Signs, for their work building the exhibit components.
To committee members from 2020-2022, some of whom have since moved on from the APS: Darlene Bloom, Christian Carpenter, Jo Chen, Kathleen Edwards, Isabel Gleyze, Bonnie Goble, Nick Miller, Marian Mills, Susanna Mills, Taisia Osipova, Heidi Rhoades, Erin Seamans, Denise Shivery, and Dr. Cathy Brachbill. A special thanks is owed to Fred Fox, who designed and built the wire cage to hold the stamps, painted the artwork wall, and managed much behind-the-scenes work to prepare the space for the exhibit.
And to those who started it all: Charlotte Sheer and Jamie Droste, the Foxborough Regional Charter School students, and the volunteers and donors who contributed to the extraordinary collection of 11 million stamps.
Click here to read an article from the American Philatelist by Scott English that has some more background information about the project.