Holocaust pennies in a week of murders
By LARRY HANKIN IJN Associate Editor

The seven children lugging heavy boxes into Bais Menachem on Tuesday were not little teamsters.

They were, in fact, six boys and a girl from Vivian Elementary School in Lakewood, hand-delivering 94,136 pennies to the east Denver synagogue.

To these children, ranging in age from 8 to 11, each of the pennies they collected and delivered represents one Jewish life lost in the Holocaust.

The students in Sharon Coffman’s class at Vivian Elementary — none of whom are Jewish — have been learning about the Holocaust, about man’s inhumanity to man, and about tolerance and good deeds, as participants in Bais Menachem’s Six Million Penny Project.

The project was developed by Rabbi Yisroel Engel with two goals: to raise funds for the writing of a new Torah scroll for Bais Menachem, and to pay tribute to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Engel, whose late parents were Holocaust survivors, challenged the community to collect and deliver six million pennies — one for every Jewish man, woman and child killed at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The new Torah scroll will be dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews killed.

Rabbi Engel expected the campaign — which has raised a third of its goal, two million pennies, since the project started in November, 2006 — to be supported primarily by the Jewish community.  He was totally and pleasantly surprised and moved by the interest shown by the Lakewood teacher and her small class of students.

A newspaper article about the Six Million Penny Project caught Sharon Coffman’s attention. She was searching for a meaningful project for her students, so she went to the campaign’s website, www.sixmillionpennies.com, to learn more.

Coffman e-mailed Rabbi Engel, setting into motion what would become a warm relationship between a chasidic rabbi and a group of gentile children.

Rabbi Engel visited Vivian Elementary School in January.  He met with the students and their teachers.  He drew upon his decades of experience as an educator of young children to explain the Holocaust to the children in terms that they could understand. He also saw that the children were collecting pennies for his campaign.

He was touched by a special display case at the school dedicated to the Six Million Penny Project.

The students spent the next three months collecting all the pennies they could from other students at Vivian, as well as from family and friends. In the meantime, Coffman kept reinforcing the concept that each of those pennies represented a human life, brutally ended simply because the person was a Jew.

The students learned about Europe and the countries involved during WW II — a history and social studies lesson.

The students counted their pennies and figured out their dollar amounts — a mathematics exercise.

And when the pennies were counted, the small group of pupils had collected a whopping 94,136 copper coins. The students and their teachers wanted to personally deliver them to the rabbi.

During the week of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, seven of the students and their teachers loaded several cars with nearly 570 pounds of pennies, and made the trek across town from Lakewood to east Denver for their special delivery.

Arriving at Bais Menachem, the students and teachers streamed into the building carrying various containers filled the pennies they had collected, making several trips.  Soon, the stage on which the Holy Ark sits in Bais Menachem’s sanctuary was covered with cardboard boxes, tissue boxes, plastic containers, jars, coffee cans and shoeboxes, brimming with pennies.

Rabbi Engel greeted the visitors with open arms, but also waiting to meet the students was Rabbi Israel Rosenfeld, a survivor of the Holocaust, and former principal of Hillel Academy.

The normally restless children sat rapt as Rabbi Rosenfeld — who rarely speaks publicly about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor — told them about his little brother who “never made it out of Aushwitz.”

His soft voice wavering, Rabbi Rosenfeld conveyed the personal pain of losing his father and his grandparents, too.

I don’t want to scare you too much,” he said as he told the kids how one day, at age 15, he went straight from school to the concentration camp — his little brother, too.  Tearfully, he mentioned how his brother was told he was going into a shower, but instead was deliberately choked to death on poison gas.

Rabbi Rosenfeld spoke about how he miraculously survived the concentration camp, although afterwards he spent three months in a hospital unable to stand or walk, his legs having been cut up by the Nazis performing medical experiments on him.

He told the children how he rebuilt his life, without his father, without his little brother, without his grandparents.  He came to the US, where he married, had children, and eventually came to Denver, where he served as principal of Hillel Academy for 25 years.

The great thing about the human spirit is that you pick up the pieces and you continue,” he said.

Rabbi Rosenfeld praised the Vivian Elementary students: “Six million is just a number with so many zeroes, but those were human beings, and I can see that you are beginning to understand that. I congratulate you for a wonderful job.”

The students expressed that they understood that Jews were killed in the Holocaust simply because they were Jews. Rabbi Engel took the opportunity to teach the students some words of Torah, although he did not express them in religious terms.

We should always treat everyone else the way we want to be treated. It doesn’t matter how a person looks. It doesn’t matter who it is."

Never, never make fun of a person,” Rabbi Engel admonished the children. “Accept everyone they way they are.”

He asked if anyone in the class had someone they hated. Several kids raised their hands. Rabbi Engel told the children, “Repeat after me:  From now on, I am not going to hate that person anymore.”