Harry Schneider was 2 when he fled with his family into a Polish forest in September 1939, just one day ahead of the German army.
Now 76 and president of the Holocaust Survivors’ Association, he can point to the 6 million pop tabs assembled inside the nearly completed “Keeping Tabs” memorial sculpture at Community Day School in Squirrel Hill and find one for each of his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins executed by the Gestapo.
“This was a project in faith,” said Head of School Avi Baran Munro. “Each one of these tabs represents a life, an important life. Pittsburgh has great Holocaust education, but they don’t really have a central site to celebrate those contributions. We hope this can become that place.”
Crisp autumn leaves cluttered ruddy mounds of soil and discarded bricks where landscapers polished and pruned the new corner park on Wednesday. Artists, architects, donors and school leaders invite the community to a public dedication at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, where visitors can stroll through the sculpture’s great glass walls.
Designed by students to mimic the Jewish Star of David, the 18-year project incorporates 6,250 tabs stuffed inside each of its 960 glass blocks stacked in metal sheets 7 to 9 feet high. Years of fundraising, grants and donations funded the construction, sculpture maintenance and an educational endowment, estimated to eventually total approximately$1 million.
The project took root almost two decades ago when history teacher Bill Walter encouraged students to collect the throwaway metal, incorporating clusters of tab collections sent from across the region to demonstrate for youngsters the gravity of 6 million Jewish deaths. Five years later, fish tanks filled to their brims with tabs lined a classroom wall and Munro decided something should be done.
“You can’t throw them out once you’ve attached this meaning to them,” she said. “That would be so wrong.”
Students worked with artist-in-residence Elena Hiatt Houlihan to conceptualize their ideas, and years later, with architect Alan Dunn to refine the design and develop the sculpture’s complex structural framework.
“When you walk through the star, there’s a disorienting effect that happens that just adds to the unreality of what took place,” Dunn said. “It could never relate to what happened in the Holocaust, but in a way it lends a subtle, isolating level to what was already a pretty powerful metaphor.”
Clutching a small handbag woven with the tiny metallic tabs, lead donor Nancy Tuckfelt stood with her husband, Gary, watching the ruckus and taking it all in.
The pair helped their daughter, then in first grade, collect the tabs and learn her lessons. Years later, on a school trip to Poland and Israel, Tuckfelt said she felt a stronger pull.
“It’s hard to conceive what 6 million is until you see something like this,” her husband said.
Squinting through the sun, Walter, now retired, points to a green tab, flush to the glass with the weight of so many others.
“We counted so many of them. We counted them for years, and after a while it seems routine,” he said. “But then you spot one a little different, an odd color or size. It’s unique just like they were, and it hits you all over again — this represents somebody who died.”
Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or [email protected].