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Volunteers sought to sort buttons for Holocaust memorial

Last spring, the community came together to collect the remaining buttons sought for the Central Valley Holocaust Button Memorial. Now a year later, a different sort of help is needed: sorting the 6 million buttons that will be part of the display at Chabad Jewish Community Center.

Construction is underway for the display that will be arranged in the garden outside the community center.

"We began three months ago in February," said Esther Schlanger, co-director of the center. "There will be six large clear cases. In each case there will be a million buttons.

As you walk along the path in this beautiful garden, you'll walk past these clear cases and you'll see the buttons. It’s very powerful."

Each of the 6 million buttons represents a single victim of the Holocaust, which resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews along with millions more from other groups, including the Roma, homosexual people and Jehovah’s Witnesses, also targeted by the Nazis.

The genesis for the project began in 2012 with Cynthia Fischer, executive director of the California Holocaust Education and Resource Center in Visalia. Realizing the Central Valley lacked a Holocaust memorial like those in large cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, she came up with an idea to create one, using buttons as a visual element of scale.

Starting locally, Fischer's effort drew the attention of button societies from across the U.S. that were happy to help the cause.

Approximately 5.5 million buttons have been collected as of last February when Fischer reached out to Rabbi Shmuel Schlanger and his wife, Esther, at Chabad of Bakersfield, which she had been visiting with her granddaughter.

After putting out a community request for buttons, the number reached the 6 million goal.

"Since introducing it a year ago, the Bakersfield community has been amazing," Esther Schlanger said. "People from every race, religion, ethnicity have helped. That has been so touching. It's been really, really amazing just to see the interest in the greater community."

Now the work is focused on sorting the buttons, some of which came with string or fabric attached, by material. Schlanger said organic buttons, like mother of pearl, will not last when stored with others made of plastic or other durable materials.

"It's all part and parcel of sharing the message of what we want to do at the memorial," she said of the sorting. "Each button represents a person. It's made things very real for them (volunteers). The different colors and shapes, each button represents a person who was killed simply for who they were — a man, a woman, a child."

Noting the effort is a lot of "hands-on work," she's been happy with the influx of volunteers who have come on Sunday afternoons for the past few months to volunteer.

"We still need a lot of help, so we're looking for volunteers."

The work is very easy, just time-consuming, Schalnger said. It is a good project for students, especially those looking for community service, as well as senior citizens, who may have more time on their hands for the effort.

And volunteers can work at the center or take the sorting off-site.

"People are welcome to come by and pick up buttons," Schlanger said. "Bring it to a school or a senior home. It's an activity."

Then the sorted buttons can be returned to the collection.

Along with volunteer work, Chabad of Bakersfield is also still raising funds for the memorial, which is expected to open to the public this fall.

Funds from events like Sunday's Jewish Deli Night at the center will go toward the memorial.

Those who want to help should email or call 661-834-1512.

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter: @realstefanidias.