As the Pebbles for Peace project in Trenton, Ont., nears its goal of collecting six million pebbles to represent the number of Jewish Holocaust victims, the project’s leaders have embarked on a $2-million fundraising initiative to build a memorial and community theatre for their town.
Inspired by Paper Clips – a documentary about a campaign led by the staff and students of Whitwell Middle School in Tennessee to collect six million paper clips in honour of Jewish Holocaust victims – staff and students at the Goodwin Learning Centre in Trenton have spent the last six years working on a similar project to help students understand “what six million looks like.”
When teacher Melissa Mikel and Linda Goodwin, the principal and founder of the private school that currently serves 42 students – none of them Jewish – spoke to The CJN in 2007, the project had just been launched, and the nearly 5,550 pebbles they had collected were being kept “neatly in a bin.”
Today, the pebbles total more than five million, and Mikel anticipates hitting the six-million mark by June.
The pebbles are temporarily on display in the school’s peace garden. The pair had intended to use them to create a memorial path, but now they have bigger plans.
“We started piling the pebbles… [but] our eyes have been open to the enormity of the project, and it has moved much farther beyond the school. It’s turned into a community project, to a Canadian project, to a global project,” Mikel said.
Since the project’s launch, pebbles and letters from all over the world – from 58 countries, from each Canadian province and territory, and even from the sites of concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Bergen-Belsen – have been mailed in.
Marion Blumenthal, a Holocaust survivor and the author of Four Perfect Pebbles, as well as Canadian authors Robert Munsch and John Koning, have contributed pebbles to the project.
“We need to make it much more than a peace garden for the school. The school will never be separated from it, and it’s a huge component of it, but because of the reaction, we’re in the process of starting our own charitable organization, the Pebbles for Peace organization.”
Through the charity, Mikel hopes to raise enough money, about $2 million, to build a memorial on the 50-acre school property, as well as a theatre to host human rights speakers, diversity conferences and film festivals.
“The goal is to build a Holocaust memorial that will commemorate the victims, that will celebrate the survivors, that will celebrate the righteous.”
The pebbles will be moved from the school’s peace garden to be displayed in the memorial.
Mikel said she hopes the memorial will open up the conversation to other human rights abuses.
“While the project started with the Holocaust, we all know that the violation of human rights didn’t end with that, so within the school, we teach about genocide, about racism and all kinds of human rights issues, and we want to create a space where that discussion can continue outside of the school as well.”
Mikel said the hope is that they’ll be able to break ground for the memorial next spring, but she anticipates that it will take anywhere from five to 10 years to build both the memorial and the theatre.
“The children have really put their hearts into this,” Goodwin said.
“When you see the smiles on their faces and you see what they have to say and the stories they tell, it’s wonderful.”
“One the parents of our graduates summed it up well,” Mikel added.
“She said, ‘We often talk about making a difference and we all have a voice, we can do it, but it’s not very often that the kids actually get to see the difference that they’re making and that’s what the pebbles project has done.’”
Goodwin said the project is also about “believing in yourself, believing that each of us can make a difference and do something that can help this world.”
In addition to incorporating Holocaust education into its curriculum, the Goodwin Learning Centre also hosts a Holocaust Education Week event every year.
On Nov. 7, Holocaust survivor Faigie Libman will share her story with the Trenton community, followed by a presentation by students about the latest plans for the pebble project.
For more information about Pebbles for Peace, visit www.goodwinlearningcentre.ca.