“The Lord is rebuilding Jerusalem; he gathers in the scattered sons of Israel. It is he who heals the broken in spirit and binds up their wounds, he who numbers the stars one by one.”
from Number the Stars qtd. Psalms 147: 2-4.
In 2009, Charlotte Sheer’s fifth grade students at Foxborough Regional Charter School read the best-selling children’s book Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, in which a young Danish girl helps smuggle Danish Jewish families out of German-occupied Denmark during WWII. A key line in the book, “[The Lord] gathers in the scattered sons of Israel ... he who numbers the stars one by one,” spurred a project that would span eight years and bring together thousands of people in a common goal: honoring the innocent lives destroyed by the Nazi’s reign of terror with stamps.
The students began with a goal of collecting 6 million stamps, to represent the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and then revised their goal to 11 million postage stamps. The number, reports Charlotte Sheer, “represents 6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children, and 5 million others in 21 European countries who were annihilated by Hitler’s ruthless regime in Nazi Germany.”
Charlotte Sheer’s class planned to collect the stamps as an enrichment activity. The Holocaust Stamps Project quickly became a shared project for the entire school community of kindergarten through grade 12 students – and the response was overwhelming. Volunteers in the Foxboro, Massachusetts, community donated thousands of hours of time helping to cut stamps off paper, and individuals and organizations from 48 states and 24 countries gathered and donated used postage stamps.
Not only did the Foxborough students collect 11 million stamps, but they also designed and created 18 (the numerals of which in Hebrew also spell chai, “life”) stamp art collages. The collages were paired with civics and history lessons that familiarized students with the events of the Holocaust and its impact, which spread like a wave across the world.
Foxborough students of all ages collaborated on 18 stamp collages. Each represents a different unique story. Kristallnacht commemorates the Night of Broken Glass, an organized attack on Jews carried out on November 9, 1938. Kristallnacht is considered by many to be a trigger event for the Holocaust.
Immortal Butterfly honors the memories of those who suffered and died in the Terezin, Czechoslovakia, ghetto/concentration camp. The poem “The Butterfly” is inscripted on the collage – its poet, Pavel Friedman, did not survive the Holocaust.
In 2017, Foxborough Regional Charter School received final donations that pushed them over their 11-million stamp goal. By 2018, with their project completed and 18 collages finished, the school celebrated the accomplishment of visually representing, and honoring the memories of, the six million Jews and five million other ‘enemies of the Nazi state’ who were killed.
And now the finished Holocaust Stamps Project has found a new home at the American Philatelic Society.
A New Home — Creating an Exhibit
11 million stamps in storage from Foxborough Regional Charter School. The stamps will be displayed behind a large glass panel at the center of the exhibit.
In the fall of 2019, APS Executive Director Scott English and Chief Content Officer Thomas Loebig traveled to Massachusetts to meet the Foxborough students and Jamie Droste, who worked with Charlotte Sheer to coordinate the Holocaust Stamps Project after Sheer’s retirement. Their trip is the subject of Scott English’s “Our Story” column from December 2019. When Scott and Tom returned to the American Philatelic Center in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, their van was filled with nearly half of the 11 million stamps and artworks; a second trip by Building Manager Fred Fox brought the remainder back.
The American Philatelic Society formed a Holocaust Stamps Project committee, under the direction of Education director, Dr. Cathy Brachbill, which would design and put together a permanent exhibit for the Holocaust Stamps Project, preserving the successful completion of a truly unique educational initiative, honoring the students’ goal to gain a deeper understanding of acceptance, tolerance, and respect for diversity in their own daily lives, and preserving also the stories of every person who was moved to donate in support of the Project.
The committee also developed a second, parallel goal: to shape the exhibit around the history of the Holocaust, using resources that are unique to the American Philatelic Society. Whereas the Holocaust Stamps Project represents remembrance, recognition, and a present-day pledge to combat intolerance, the American Philatelic Society is uniquely situated to provide evidence and education in the form of irrefutable postal history. The committee reached out to prominent Holocaust-era philatelists, including Justin Gordon, Keith Stupell, and Ken Lawrence, and drew upon philatelic exhibits, books, and articles to develop a postal history exhibit that would complement the Holocaust Stamp Project materials. The committee also worked with local Jewish leaders and historians from Penn State University to develop guidelines for the exhibit.
These two purposes for the exhibit shaped many of the committee’s decisions that followed. Visitors to the American Philatelic Center after the exhibit’s opening in June will witness that unfathomable tragedy as represented by the 11 million stamps that were collected by the Foxborough Regional Charter School students. [Editor's note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibit's opening has been postponed.] You will see a timeline of the events of the Holocaust and the spread of concentration camps and ghettos across Europe, with postal cards, information cards, and other surviving remnants of postal history connected to the dates and locations. You will bear witness to individual victims of the Nazis, many of whom would die in the concentration camps, through a single piece of paper that may be the only remaining evidence of their lives. You will also see this history carried forward into the future, through the connections forged by Foxborough students with survivors, family and friends of Holocaust victims, and individuals moved by the project to contribute.
To that point, below are a few excerpts from the letters received by Foxborough students in the course of their project. It may come as no surprise to you that many of the stamp donations were paired with testimonials of even greater value to the students – and now, to us.
My great aunt, Mindl Kotel, was killed by the Nazis in front of her home, along with her husband and three children ages 11, 8 and 5. I saved five of the prettiest stamps and am putting them with a page showing the truncated family tree. Thank you for remembering Mindl, Pinya, Vladimir, Abram and Bronya, along [with] the other 11 million killed in the Holocaust.
These stamps were donated by S. Radbil, whose family tree was broken by the Nazis; each stamp represents a family member.
... Some [stamps] are from my piano teacher ... [Her name] was Gabriella Kottler and I will never forget the number burned on her arm from when she was in the camps. One Christmas, she came to our house for dinner with her husband and ended up telling us her story. I vividly remember her telling us how they wanted to break her as she was a strong woman. Gabriella persevered, even when they took her shoes and made her stand in line in the snow. There was not a sound around the dinner table for over an hour.
I am sending you 100 Australian stamps, in memory of my maternal grandparents, Dolec and Jozefa Lurie. Both were survivors of concentration camps, and along with Dolec’s brother, were the only members of both families combined to live through the Holocaust. They were newly-weds before the war, and were reunited afterwards in a displaced person’s camp in Trani, Italy. They chose to emigrate to Australia, and lived there the rest of their lives.
Last summer, I learned that my great-uncle Dan had helped liberate Belsen. He had about ten photographs from within the camp with him, which he showed me briefly.
Later last summer, Uncle Dan was put in hospital due to dementia. No one seems to know what became of his belongings.
There is one photo in particular that haunts me — that of a very pretty young woman, naked and twisted, dead on the ground.
Now — am I the only one who can remember her? Who was she? Who were her family? Are they still looking for her? Where will she go if I too forget her? When I die — will she die again, too? What was her name? What was her crime?
The poem “A Walk to Caesarea,” also known as Eli Eli, pictured right, was written by Hannah Szenes, who was killed in 1944 after refusing to give up details about her mission to rescue Hungarian Jews from deportation to Auschwitz. The English translation is as follows:
I pray that these never end,
The sand and the sea,
The rush of the waters,
The light of the heavens,
The prayer of the heart.
Over the course of nine years, the students of Foxborough did more than just collect 11 million stamps — they created a movement that touched the world community. The American Philatelic Society is grateful for their work, for those who freely shared their stories, and for the responsibility of preserving — and building upon — these efforts. We hope you will join us at the American Philatelic Center and bear witness to these stories with us.
Editor's Note: The column was published in the April 2020 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - stay tuned for more columns and articles from 2020, and read the full April issue here.