As Holocaust Memorial Day approaches, I am reminded of how Nazis meticulously gathered and documented all possessions belonging to Jews. Among the items collected from arrivals at concentration camps were large piles of buttons, often cut from clothes that had endured harsh conditions in ghettos or during transportation in cattle trains.
It’s interesting to note that the collection methods share similarities with the satisfaction experienced by all collectors in organizing and arranging their finds. While the systematic logging of belongings by concentration camp officials may evoke horror, it also underscores a universal human inclination for order amidst chaos, uncomfortably connecting us all to such tragic historical events.
Allegations Of Human Skin And Bone Utilization In Concentration Camps
Though the evidence remains inconclusive, there was a widespread belief that some camp commanders utilized human skin to produce ‘leather’ goods as a primal display of power over their captives. Similarly, there were fears that human bones were crafted into buttons.
In Benigni’s film “La Vita è Bella,” the father reassures his son that their internment camp is simply a peculiar but whimsical game, dismissing rumors of being turned into “buttons and soap” as absurd jests. The act of collecting buttons for-profit and utilizing captives’ bodies for utilitarian goods effectively demoralizes the enemy, dehumanizing them and treating them as mere commodities akin to animals.
Ironically, in the Lodz ghetto in Poland, where factories were established to produce textile goods for the Wehrmacht (initially 70, later as many as 119 factories), the bulk of buttons for the Reich’s uniforms were produced.
In these factories, skilled Jewish button makers might have later contributed their own clothing buttons when they were deported to the death camps of Chelmno and Auschwitz. It’s conceivable that their bones might also have been utilized at some point.
The Significance Of Buttons In Nazi Atrocities
While buttons may appear insignificant in the broader context of the Nazi regime, it is often in small practical matters that the true nature of a regime is revealed. Furthermore, adopting the button as a symbol to represent the number of individuals killed underscores its significance.
Perhaps it is precisely the ordinariness of the button—a simple object that can be easily obtained and discarded—that makes it a fitting symbol due to its ubiquitous availability.
The Jewish Federation of Peoria in Illinois erected a Holocaust Memorial in 2001, featuring 18 glass towers arranged in the shape of the Star of David, symbolizing the Hebrew word “chai,” meaning ‘life.’ These towers, arranged in two rows, were intended to evoke the camp selection process, determining who would live and who would die.
Additionally, five triangular shapes represented non-Jewish victims, such as Romas, homosexuals, and the handicapped. Over 11 million buttons were scattered from these vessels, symbolizing all Jewish and non-Jewish victims, or ‘enemies of the State,’ killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
The choice of buttons as a symbol was significant, suggesting both a sense of unity and fragility inherent in family and community. Small and tactile buttons could be easily collected, with each representing a unique individual involved in the tragedy.
Projects Inspired By Peoria’s Holocaust Memorial
Peoria has inspired other similar initiatives, such as the 2011 memorial in Kirklees, where a permanent outdoor installation comprising 6 million buttons was established. Additionally, in the small Moriah school in Wellington, New Zealand, a project is ongoing to gather 1.5 million buttons, each representing a child who perished in the Holocaust.
The profound impact of these memorials is grounded in our shared recognition of buttons as poignant relics of the past. It’s difficult to discard an old button tin, as each seemingly ordinary button likely played a role in the lives of individuals in our own families.
Sabina Miller, a resident of London who was born in Warsaw in 1923 and interned in the ghetto with her family, holds dear a woolen waistcoat gifted by her mother, possibly on her birthday in June 1939, before her harrowing escape and perilous survival throughout the war.
Despite the garment’s worn condition, the simple row of buttons down the front has endured. Sabina intends to pass it on to her daughter and granddaughters as a memorial. Her message to us resonates deeply.
‘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 authored “On the Button,” a creative examination of the cultural significance of buttons, encompassing their various forms, functions, and roles in the visual arts.