“NOT the Last Butterfly,” a new film co-produced and co-directed by Joe Fab, creator of the film “Paper Clips,” will be shown at the Manhattan JCC on January 24 at 7:00 p.m. The film follows co-director and producer Cheryl Rattner Price, a San Diego artist who grew up in Paramus, as she develops what has become a global movement to teach about the Holocaust, in both Jewish and non-Jewish schools, by painting ceramic butterflies in memory of the children who were killed. In many classes, Holocaust survivors speak to the students and paint butterflies along with them. The Butterfly Project has a goal of creating 1.5 million butterflies, one for each child killed in the Shoah. When grouped together, the butterflies form stunning visual installations that can now be seen all over the world.
“NOT the Last Butterfly” was filmed on location in the U.S., the Czech Republic, Poland and Israel, with an original score by composer Charlie Barnett. Following the screening of the film, the audience can paint their own butterflies with Price, Fab and Ela Weissberger, a survivor profiled in the film.
The inspiration for the project came from the poem, “The Butterfly,” written by Pavel Friedmann, a young man imprisoned in the ghetto of Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt, and later killed in Auschwitz. Woven into the uplifting film of children and survivors creating beauty to remember tragedy, is the story of Weissberger, who travels back to Terezin with Price and Fab. She talks about her childhood in the camp, and the incredible nurturing of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a Bauhaus-trained artist who taught the children how to express themselves through art before she was murdered. Dicker-Brandeis saved thousands of drawings and poems in suitcases that were recovered after the war. Many are on display at the Ghetto Museum in Terezin, and Weissberger points to one of hers in the film. Weissberger also performed in the children’s opera Brundibar. In what Fab called the original fake news story, the Nazis dressed up Terezin and made the many talented Jewish inmates give performances of music and theater to blind the outside world to their real intentions. Most of the inmates were deported to Auschwitz and killed.
The success of “Paper Clips,” an award-winning film about a Tennessee school that collected six million paper clips to memorialize the six million killed in the Holocaust, brought a flood of people to Joe Fab’s door with suggestions for his next film. The Butterfly Project drew him in more than any other.
“A lot of people who approached me had stories about family members but you can’t make all those stories into film with no visuals or source material, just with a person telling me,” Fab said in a phone interview. “But Cheryl was so authentically committed to what she was doing that it sounded like someone who was going to get it done, as opposed to a lovely idea that was not going to happen. She had been documenting the project on video for years and had a lot of footage. I could see the kind of help she needed. I like wrestling a story to the floor. I love that kind of puzzle; I was l hooked.”
The Butterfly Project began in 2006 when Jan Landau, a teacher at the San Diego Jewish Academy, was looking for a way to teach children about the Holocaust in a way that would be engaging and not frightening. She enlisted the help of Price, who was an artist in residence at the school. Landau wanted to use a butterfly as a symbol, and Price, a trained ceramic artist, suggested making butterflies that could be hand painted. They expanded the project by developing kits to send to other schools with clay butterflies and paints, and included brief stories of the children the butterflies would memorialize.
What made Price turn The Butterfly Project into her life’s work? “I fell in love with the project because it touched something deep inside me that I didn’t even know would wake up a sense of responsibility for the Jewish people,” Price wrote in a follow-up email to our phone interview. “I felt if I could be moved to learn more about the Holocaust—a topic that I had totally avoided—through making art, then others might be moved also. It really became an obsession for me. I simply felt a responsibility to keep it alive.”
Price has visited many of the schools, centers and groups around the world who have welcomed The Butterfly Project, attending the dedication of a new installation, or interacting with students while they paint. In 2012 she went to Poland where young men and women were creating a butterfly installation for a music festival, and brought along a professional film crew. An unanticipated encounter caught on camera became a significant part of her film. Price said they were filming in the crematorium in Auschwitz when a group of religious men in black hats and coats came in. “We respectfully moved aside but they motioned for us to come over and film what they were about to do and made space for us to stand by,” she recalled. “They were cantors and rabbis from both London and Jerusalem, a type of informal choir that I believe have done several trips together musically.” Their solemn harmonies provide an authentic, goosebump-inducing background to several scenes in the film.
Price said working as Executive Producer and Co-Director with Fab gave her an education in filmmaking as a new art form for her. She was used to creating alone and the collaboration needed to make a film was a different way of working. She said Fab understood that this was her baby, while guiding her in making choices about what the film needed to engage an audience.
She also learned what not to include. “I’ve had more than 17 camera people in four countries, 220 hours of film that had to be pared down into 58 minutes. I was like a mosaic artist that gathered everything in case I wanted to use it.”
That’s where Fab’s expertise came in. William Faulkner famously said, “In writing, you have to kill all your darlings.” Fab taught Price how to do it in film. “I wanted the film to be another 30 minutes but Joe disagreed and he was right,” she admitted.
“NOT the Last Butterfly” was completed in April 2016 and had its premiere at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, followed by butterfly painting with the audience. The film was also shown at The Virginia Film Festival to a mostly non-Jewish audience. “We want to teach young people so that they can prevent hatred and genocide from happening again,” Price said. “I am very proud of the way this project has impacted my Jewish identity. I feel I am providing a way for connection between Jewish groups and also as an interfaith ambassador for a better world.”
Prior to the Manhattan screening, Price and Fab are going to Latvia at the invitation of the U.S. Ambassador. They’ll be bringing a lot of butterflies: Over 90 percent of Latvia’s 62,000 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
By Bracha Schwartz