Each One A Life...

by Monica Vest Wheeler

The rebirth of the Peoria Holocaust Memorial is an important symbol of why we must be vigilant as a society.

With an increasing number of headlines describing brutal and demeaning criminal acts against those of the Jewish faith across the globe, there’s an ember of hope for peace and understanding igniting. And it's right here in the River City.

Central Illinois remains home to the widely recognized Peoria Holocaust Memorial, nationally known as the “Button Project,” but in a new location and an accompanying rebirth after its original dedication in 2003. The timing of its reintroduction at the Peoria Riverfront Museum on April 23, 2017 could not be more significant, amidst a world stage of troubled national examples of hatred, bigotry, violence and intolerance for human differences.

Peoria Holocaust Memorial groundbreaking
Community volunteers, activists and government leaders broke ground on the new site on February 26, 2017. A public rededication ceremony takes place on April 23, 2017 at 2pm.

Canary in the Coal Mine
“There has been a rise in anti-Semitism in recent months,” notes Susan Katz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Peoria. More than 100 Jewish Community Centers across 36 states and four Canadian provinces have received bomb threats. Jewish cemeteries around the country have been vandalized; swastikas have been spray-painted on college dorms and campuses, public schools, synagogues and public places; Jewish journalists have received threats via social media and personal email. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there has been a spike in anti-Semitic incidents for the second year in a row.

“If we look back over history, Jews are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to hatred,” Katz explains. “They are the early warning signal of things to come: Hitler attacked the Jews before he attacked Western Civilization. The world stood by when it was just the Jews. When it became something more ominous, we entered into World War II.

“It was too late for two thirds of European Jewry, but democracy did prevail,” she adds. “Anti-Semitism is a hatred of freedom and humanity. We must recognize that the hate that begins with the Jews never ends with the Jews."

An Important Symbol
The relocation of the Peoria Holocaust Memorial came about from changes at its former location—and sparked the search for a creative solution to continue promoting greater awareness of the tragedy, horrors and lessons of the cruelest extermination of human life. Each of its millions of buttons—six million for Jewish victims of the Nazi regime of World War II, and five million representing other enemies of the Nazi state—reflects the loss of an individual life. The enormity of such a collection captivates and humbles the visitor. It is also a vital learning tool for children, as the State of Illinois mandates Holocaust education.

The rebirth of the Memorial, thanks to overwhelming financial and volunteer support from all corners of central Illinois, is an important symbol of why we must be vigilant as a society, with an emphasis on respect and tolerance. And what better location than the cornerstone of learning and education that is the Peoria Riverfront Museum, which has opened its doors to local, national and worldwide audiences. An unused section of the grounds was a perfect setting for this one-of-a-kind teaching tool displaying the millions of buttons in specially-designed glass star and triangle cases.

The architecture of the site reflects symbolism, with 18 Star of David glass-shaped structures containing six million buttons that memorialize the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. The figure “18” is the numerical equivalent of the word life in Hebrew; therefore, the 18 columns represent life. The Star of David is a well-recognized Jewish symbol. The star-shaped columns stand in two rows representing the selection process Jews faced when they arrived at the concentration camps: one way signaled life, and the other, a death sentence.

The triangles are the shapes of the badges that various targeted groups wore in the camps. Romas, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, political dissidents and others were given various colored triangles depending on how they were classified.


Hundreds of volunteers helped wash and sort 11 million buttons. After two years of sorting and cleaning, the buttons were ready for the new Memorial in February.

The Fragility of Life
Initiated in 2001, the “Button Project” served to collect buttons from around the world to symbolize the horrific consequences of the Holocaust:

  • Each button is unique, like each person.
  • Buttons hold things together—an analogy to every individual who helped hold together their family, their community and their society.
  • Buttons, once opened, left the people vulnerable.
  • Buttons were a part of all the clothes left behind at the gates of the concentration camps, ghettos and slave camps.
  • Buttons are enduring—they last long after garments have faded and unraveled to remind us of the lessons of the Holocaust.
  • Buttons are round and symbolize the cycle of life.

That mission more than a decade ago awakened a heartbreaking, yet inspiring wave of awareness about the fragility of human life... as well as the unique opportunities of our differences and how they enrich our individual lives, culture and the world. These contributions gave birth to a memorial that was even more appealing and socially significant because of the raw human emotions it stirred.

“The Holocaust Memorial is more important now than ever,” Katz adds. “As we see the rise of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and ‘otherizing’ people, we see clear signals that we must remember our history and learn from it. It is up to all of us to safeguard the rights of others to practice their religions and to live their lives without fear of racism or bigotry.”


An unused section of the Peoria Riverfront Museum grounds proved to be the perfect setting for the Peoria Holocaust Memorial’s relocation—a new home for a timeless project.

Acts of Tolerance and Inclusivity
The rededication of the Memorial is tied into the annual marking of Yom Hashoah, the tradition of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Featured at the April ceremony is Manfed Katz, a Holocaust survivor, who happens to be Susan Katz’s father-in-law. She and a number of other Peorians have experienced this tragedy of mass murder personally through close and extended family members—most of whom did not survive the brutal wave of anti-Semitism in World War II Europe... murdered only because they were of the Jewish faith.

“It is incumbent upon us to combat discrimination and intolerance through education and acts of tolerance and inclusivity,” Katz affirms. “The Memorial is a symbol of what can happen when society turns a blind eye to hatred.” a&s

The Peoria Holocaust Memorial Dedication takes place at 2pm on April 23, 2017 at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. For more information, visit peoriaholocaustmemorial.org.

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