‘May we be strengthened’

‘May we be strengthened’

Nine hundred sixty clear glass blocks full of aluminum can tabs make up the Star of David sculpture that visitors are encouraged to walk through and explore. (Chronicle photos by Ilana Yergin)
Nine hundred sixty clear glass blocks full of aluminum can tabs make up the Star of David sculpture that visitors are encouraged to walk through and explore. (Chronicle photos by Ilana Yergin)

Hundreds of people gathered outside Community Day School on a crisp, bright fall day Sunday for the dedication of the Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs: A Holocaust Sculpture.

The sculpture is the culmination of 18 years of work that began with a middle school history lesson and a single pop can tab.

“The sculpture was not in anyone’s minds when we started the collection,” said CDS Head of School Avi Baran Munro.

For four and a half years, beginning in 1996, the CDS community collected 6 million aluminum can tabs. Once the tabs were collected and counted, they lived in 148 aquariums in history teacher Bill Walter’s classroom for six years before the idea to turn them into a memorial was discussed.

Elena Hiatt Houlihan, an artist in residence at the Pennsylvania Arts Council, went to work with the students for one year, teaching them about installation art and helping them design the memorial. They came up with a variety of ideas for what to do with the pop tabs. One student suggested a curtain of pop tabs hanging from the side of the building; another designed a “dove of peace.”

The design they ultimately chose is a fractured Star of David people can walk through. It is made of 960 clear, glass blocks that are filled with the tabs. That was when the administration had to tackle the difficult logistical hurtles.

“Funding is always the hugest one,” said Baran Munro.

Enter Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt, parents of Cara Tuckfelt, who was a student at CDS 18 years ago when the collection first began.

“We got involved because our daughter was in the school and they advertised very well that they were collecting pop tabs,” said Nancy. “We collected and counted through the years and then the project sort of went away.”

During the time that the pop tabs were sitting in the aquariums, Nancy and Cara took a trip with the School of Advanced Jewish Studies, led by Tsipy Gur, through Europe to learn about the Holocaust.

“We had a very intense but moving and poignant trip,” said Nancy.

Two years ago, Gary and Nancy were at the groundbreaking ceremony for the memorial, which was then called “Keeping Tabs: A Holocaust Sculpture.” Although the school had already received enough donations to begin the construction, there was still a significant amount of money that needed to be raised.

“When my husband and I went to the groundbreaking, we looked at each other and said we should do this,” said Nancy.

“It just felt right to us.”

That was when the Tuckfelts became the largest individual donors and the namesakes of the sculpture.

• • •

Before the ceremony, before the first blocks were laid in the ground, before the first dollar was raised, before the student design competition, Bill Walter wanted to help his students better understand what 6 million really looks like.

He came up with the idea, with the help of other CDS teachers and staff, to have the students collect aluminum can tabs. Toward the end of the 1995-96 school year on Yom HaShoah, the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, the middle school students began collecting the tabs. Over the course of one month, they garnered 25,000.

“I thought, ‘That’s a lot of tabs,’ ” said Walter. “Until I divided 25,000 into 6 million and it would’ve taken, I think, 23 years to do that at that rate.”

Prior to the start of the next year, Walter expanded the collection to the entire school, and the community of people collecting tabs grew and grew.

“It was amazing to me how many people became involved and I didn’t even know they knew about it,” said Walter.

“People would leave them on my doorstep.”

“I think the community of the school, the teachers, did a really good job inspiring [the students],” said Baran Munro, who became head of school at CDS in 2004 and was in charge of the elementary school when the project began.

“They got inspired,” she said of how the students helped the project grow exponentially. “And they inspired others.”

The students took the idea with them as they left CDS, and got their high schools and colleges involved. Students collected pop tabs on their vacations. Neighbors collected tabs. Family members collected tabs.

In the end, it took the community four and a half years to collect the 6 million pop tabs.

Then came the counting — another daunting task that required the help of many people.

“You get into a routine as you’re counting them,” said Walter. “But once in a while you’d see a red one, or a blue one, or a green one, or one that’s from a cat tin top, or some other kind of top, one that’s twisted, and then you’d stop and think: That represented someone. I don’t know who it was, but it represented someone.”

Today the sculpture stands completed in the front lawn of CDS that runs alongside Beechwood Boulevard.

“People had a hard time envisioning it until it was built,” said Baran Munro. “It was hard to imagine what it would look like. Since it’s been built we’ve had only awe.”

Among the hundreds of former students, parents, Holocaust survivors, and politicians who attended the dedication ceremony, was Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese Bishop David Zubik, who was very moved by the sculpture.

“It was really powerful,” he said. “It was interesting because, as I was coming out, there was a 95-year-old survivor coming in. Just to see the life from his eyes and to know all that it took from him to get to this particular point, and that so many other people didn’t — the 6 million that this represents and others as well.”

Danni Caplan, 16, an alumnus of CDS, helped fill some of the blocks with the pop tabs. She said it was important for the school to do a project like this.

“To remember and to never forget,” she said. “And so this never happens again.”

In completing the design of the sculpture the Tuckfelts hoped the school would include one element they felt strongly about: a Hebrew saying that was inscribed around the entrance to the sculpture. It reads: “Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazek — Be Strong, Be Strong, and May We Be Strengthened.”

(Ilana Yergin can be reached at ilana.yergin@gmail.com.)