Inside Chabad of Bakersfield, you'll find lots of buttons — nearly 6 million of them.
But they're more than just a feature on a shirt or jacket. Each one represents a Jewish life "ruthlessly uprooted" by Nazis during World War II, explained Rabbi Shmuel Schlanger, director of the Chabad of Bakersfield. And soon they will bring color to such a dark time in history through the Central Valley's first Holocaust memorial.
A wall in Chabad of Bakersfield's backyard area will soon be full of colorful buttons of all shapes and sizes — much like humans — spanning around 20 to 30 feet. There will also be a garden adjacent to the memorial, bringing even more color to the space.
"This is not a cemetery, this is a place of life and joy. This will be a place of meaning for all those who come through," Schlanger said.
The idea for a memorial started almost a decade ago in Visalia. Cynthia Fischer, executive director of the California Holocaust Education and Resource Center, has done a number of things for the Jewish community in Visalia, such as founding Beit Shalom synagogue and teaching youths about the Holocaust. However, she realized the Central Valley was lacking a Holocaust memorial, similar to ones she had seen throughout Los Angeles and San Francisco, Fischer said.
That's when collecting 6 million buttons came to mind.
"Buttons come in all different shapes, sizes and colors, and some are even broken," Fischer said. "In Germany, (Nazis) murdered the disabled. If they were broken, they were not useful."
Other groups, including the Roma, homosexual people and Jehovah’s Witnesses, were targeted by the Nazis and imprisoned and killed in concentration camps. Though an exact number is not known, it is estimated that 11 million people died in the Holocaust.
Because buttons come in so many different forms, Fischer believed it was the best way to show and honor what made victims unique. She also wanted to find a way to remember her family — her grandmother lost nearly all of her siblings in Auschwitz.
In 2012, Fischer's collection started out locally, but over the years attracted the attention of button societies from various states. She found button groups on Facebook and traded with them, often asking for more buttons in return, which the groups were happy to oblige with since they knew about Fischer's goal. She even has attended the California State Button Society annual convention and spoken about her collection.
Approximately 5.5 million buttons have been collected so far.
Initially, the memorial was going to be a long-term project for the California Holocaust Education and Resource Center. Over the past several months, however, Fischer has been coming to Chabad of Bakersfield with her granddaughter. One day, she asked Schlanger and his wife, Esther, if they were interested in participating in the memorial, and the rest is history.
Seeing the buttons for the first time was "very emotional" for Schlanger, whose grandfather was the sole survivor of his family. He believes the best way to memorialize those who were killed is to affirm the life of the living, which is what he hopes the memorial will do. When it is built, Schlanger hopes schools and people of all backgrounds will visit the site and remember to show more kindness in the world.
"It's not just a story of the past, but it is integrating the past to the world we live in today and to what the world will look like tomorrow," he said.
Jeremy Adams, a history teacher at Bakersfield High School, believes the memorial will serve as a potent reminder that the highs and lows of human history are never that far away from us.
"Often the young men and women populating my classroom are so certain that the darker impulses of human societies are forever in the rearview mirror of history," Adams said. "This memorial would be an extraordinary reminder that some of the worst atrocities ever committed by human beings happened within the last century.”
Before any building can get started, Chabad of Bakersfield is looking to reach the 6 million button goal. Local individuals can contact Chabad of Bakersfield at 661-834-1512 or https://www.chabadofbakersfield.com/tools/feedback.htm about dropping off buttons.
Schlanger estimated that the initial planning and building of the memorial, producing educational materials and administration, will cost $350,000. Sponsorship and donation opportunities are available at www.chabadofbakersfield.com/buttonmemorial.
Schlanger is looking forward to "history in the making" in the Central Valley and bringing the world closer to the Messianic Era — a time of peace and harmony.
"We don't just believe that it is a dream. We believe it will be a reality. There will be a time when there will be no more war, pain, suffering, pandemics, evil," Schlanger said. "Our great Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson taught us that one act of goodness and kindness by anybody can take that scale."