Cynthia Ficsher of Visalia has collected millions of buttons for a new Holocaust memorial in Bakersfield. (Photo/Courtesy Leah Schlanger)
Cynthia Ficsher of Visalia has collected millions of buttons for a new Holocaust memorial in Bakersfield. (Photo/Courtesy Leah Schlanger)

Millions of buttons collected for Central Valley’s first Holocaust memorial

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Six million buttons of many colors and shapes and sizes — buttons made of metal, wood, cloth, plastic, pearl and shell, plain buttons and buttons with patterns, textured buttons and flat buttons — soon will serve as a memorial in a garden setting at Chabad of Bakersfield to honor the lives of every Jewish woman, man and child killed in the Holocaust.

“We are focused on affirming the lives of every one of them,” said Rabbi Shmuel Schlanger, co-director with his wife, Esther, of Chabad of Bakersfield. “We are going to build this memorial to encourage people of all backgrounds to come here and to reflect on how they could counteract evil deeds of the past by replacing them with deeds of kindness, to make the future and the world more beautiful.”

Rabbi Shmuel and Esther Schlanger
Rabbi Shmuel and Esther Schlanger

As he spoke, Schlanger was deftly fielding drop-offs of — what else — boxes and bags of buttons from residents of Bakersfield, who recently learned about the project on a television news broadcast, from the local newspaper and on Chabad’s Facebook page.  He reported that about 1,500 buttons had been dropped off that very morning.

They will be added to the 5.5 million already collected, donated by individuals across the country. Cynthia Fischer of Visalia, executive director of the California Holocaust Education and Resource Center (CHERC), initiated the project. About a decade ago, Fischer heard about “Paper Clips,” a documentary film about a middle-school class in Whitwell, Tennessee, that collected 6 million paper clips to represent the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.

“I started thinking about buttons, how they come in all shapes, sizes, colors and materials, and how that’s the way Jewish people come,” Fischer said. On her own, she decided to start collecting buttons. Then, in 2013, Fischer founded the nonprofit CHERC.

“Our mission is to prevent a repetition of the Holocaust, and as I was teaching about the Holocaust and handing out flyers in the Visalia area, the first buttons started to come in,” Fischer said. “Then, about five years ago, I got savvy with Facebook and the internet and I connected with groups of button collectors across the country.”

As the boxes arrived, Fischer stored them in a shed and the garage at Beit Shalom, a synagogue she helped found. Over the years, students at the La Sierra Military Academy helped count buttons as part of their community service obligation. Early in 2020, Fischer met the Schlangers when she began taking her granddaughter to Sunday school at Chabad of Bakersfield, about 80 miles south of Visalia. Late in December, she spoke with them about her idea for a memorial showcasing the buttons.

“They were very excited about it, and all three of us are tickled pink,” Fischer said. “A couple weeks ago, Rabbi Schlanger brought a truck to Visalia and loaded up all the buttons.” She noted that most Holocaust memorials in California are in the big cities. “I’m thrilled that now the San Joaquin Valley will have one.” South of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta in the Central Valley, the San Joaquin Valley comprises seven counties in Northern California and one in Southern California.

Some of the vast collection of buttons that will be part of the memorial.
Some of the vast collection of buttons that will be part of the memorial.

Historical records indicate Jews settled in the Central Valley as early as the mid-1800s, many of them immigrants from Eastern Europe. Today, the area is home to just over 7 million people, but the Jewish population is not large, said Phyllis Farrow, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central California. “I would estimate there may be about 2,000 Jewish people in the Central Valley,” Farrow said. “Of course, there are a lot of unaffiliated Jews, so it’s hard to know.” In Bakersfield, a city of 377,000, two synagogues and Chabad serve a couple of hundred Jewish families.

Once built, the Holocaust memorial will include benches, a fountain and trees, and the buttons will be on display along an outdoor wall already in place on the Chabad property. “The wall is about 60 or 70 feet long, though we may not use all of it,” said Schlanger. “We’re waiting now for renderings, and we’re in need of donations from a foundation or individuals to help with construction costs, which we estimate will be between $250,000-$350,000.”

Schlanger said the inspiration for the memorial came from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former leader of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement. “When the idea to leave an empty seat at the Passover table to remember everyone killed in the Holocaust was presented to the Rebbe, he said that to bring merit to the souls of the 6 million, the chair should be filled by another Jew who doesn’t have a seder to go to,” he said. “That is the type of memorial we will build, one that fills the empty chair with the love and joy of the seder table.”

Schlanger paused the phone interview to greet a woman at the door bearing buttons. She said that she was grateful to have a place to donate her treasured collection, and that she considered the memorial a meaningful project to help visitors understand what happened during the Holocaust.

That sentiment echoes what Schlanger has heard repeatedly. “This is a phenomenal opportunity for us, and we have to go all out to make this Holocaust memorial stunning, one that acknowledges the past and also makes a statement about affirming life,” Schlanger said. “We feel it could become a meaningful destination.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.