On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, I am reminded of how Nazis systematically collected and catalogued all Jewish possessions. Ephemera taken from concentration camp arrivals include vast piles of buttons. They were cut from clothes often in a poor state, from time spent in the ghetto, or from the dire conditions suffered on the incoming cattle trains. It is curious that the systems of collection used have much in common with the aesthetic and organizational satisfactions experienced by all collectors. To collect is to take pleasure in enumerating, sifting and collating, and ritually arranging finds. Whilst we may be horrified by the piles of belongings so carefully logged by concentration camp clerical methods, this evidence of a common human need for order in chaos, uncomfortably links us all to such monstrous historical event.
Although the evidence is not conclusive, there was a strongly held belief that human skin was employed by some camp commanders to fashion ‘leather’ goods, as a primal demonstration of power over their captives, and that similarly it was feared that human bone was being fashioned into buttons. In Benigni’s film, La Vita è Bella, a father endeavours to convince his son that the camp in which they are interned is nothing more than a strange but light-hearted game, and that the rumour that they are to be burned in ovens and turned into ‘ buttons and soap’, is nothing but a silly jest. This idea that buttons might not only be collected for imagined profit, but that the captives’ bodies themselves might be used as a source of useful goods, is an effective strategy in demoralizing an enemy, treating them as we do animals, as a commodity.
It is an irony that in Lodz ghetto in Poland, where factories were built to provide textile goods for the Wehrmacht (initially 70, later as many as 119 factories), the majority of buttons for the Reich’s uniforms were produced. These skilled Jewish button makers might later have gone on to contribute their own clothing buttons when deported to the death camps of Chelmno and Auchwitz, and conceivably their bones might in due course have also been utilized.
Buttons might seem too slighting an aspect of the Nazi plan to deserve special attention. However it is often in small practical matters that the underbelly of a regime may reveal itself. Moreover it is the button that has been adopted to symbolize the numbers of individuals killed. Perhaps it is the very ordinariness of the button – a simple object that can be held in the hand, easily got, easily discarded – that is fitting just because of this sense of their ubiquitous availability.
The Jewish Federation of Peoria in Illinois set up a Holocaust Memorial in 2001, using 18 glass towers in the shape of the star of David, a number standing for the Hebrew chai, meaning ‘life’. They were set out in two rows to suggest the camp selection process, of who was to live and who to die, and five further triangular shapes were to represent non-Jews, such as Romas, homosexuals and the handicapped. Out of these vessels spill over 11 million buttons, representing all Jewish and non-Jewish, all ‘enemies of the State’ killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. The button was thought to be a fitting symbol because it could suggest both a sense of holding together and yet something that can be easily undone, like the strength and fragility of family and community. Buttons are small, tactile objects that could be easily collected, no one button exactly like another as with the individuals involved.
Peoria has given rise to other similar projects such as that in Kirklees in 2011, where a permanent outdoor memorial using 6 million buttons has been set up. In the tiny Moriah school in Wellington, New Zealand, a project is underway to collect 1.5 million buttons to represent every child who died in the Holocaust.
The impact of these memorials is underpinned by our common response to the button as a touching repository of the past. It is hard to discard an old button tin as we recognize perhaps that each apparently nondescript button has once had a role in the lives of people in our own families. Sabina Miller, now living in London, was born in Warsaw in 1923 and interned in the ghetto there with her family. She cherishes a woollen waistcoat her mother gave her – she thinks on her birthday in June 1939 – before she was forced to escape, living from hand to mouth and in great danger until the end of the war. The garment is naturally very worn now, but the simple row of buttons down the front has stood the test of time. She intends to pass it on to her daughter and granddaughters in memoriam. This is her message to us:
‘I want…you to learn what harm war can cause. To ask why we can’t live in peace – this is very important to me. I would like to ask you to think about what happened and try to live lives so that war could not happen anymore.’ ■
Nina Edwards is the author of On the Button, an inventive exploration of the cultural history of the button, from its forms and functions to its place in the visual arts.
You can also follow Nina on her blog, Buttons and Offal.