The Groton-Dunstable School District’s Million Penny Project is complete. For the second time. About 25 students, parents, teachers, and community members came together today at the Groton-Dunstable South Middle School to clean and load 1.5 million pennies — each one symbolizing a child who was killed in the Nazi Holocaust of World War II — into a new acrylic and steel container in the school lobby.
Six years ago, Groton-Dunstable Regional School District eighth grade students began studying the horrors of the holocaust as part of their school curriculum. Understanding lessons of tolerance and the value of diversity struck a chord for these students in the “whitest” school district in the state of Massachusetts. In order to truly comprehend the numbers of 11 million lives lost at the hands of the Nazis -— six million Jews, 1.5 million of them children -— students in Niki Rockwell’s home room began collecting one million pennies to help them understand how much a million really is.
Also in 2006, when the project was beginning, students were further moved after seeing the documentary film Paper Clips. It tells the story of middle school students in Whitwell, Tennessee who collected 6 million paper clips to represent the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The film was brought to the students by Groton by resident Amy Degen, who also arranged two additional public “community” showings and a post-film discussion with the by producer, writer, director of the film, Joe Fab.
By the summer of 2006, students had already collected about 200,000 pennies through middle school collections and by placing collection containers at local business in Groton and Dunstable. In September of that year, the Million Penny Project became the subject of national news when Rockwell returned for a new school year to learn that about half of the 200,000 pennies had been stolen over the summer.
Following the theft and the resulting Boston media and news coverage, donations began coming in from the greater metro area, as well as some donations from as far away as Maryland. One of the two largest benefactors to the original project was retired businessman and philanthropist A. Raymond Tye from Braintree, former owner of United Liquors and founder of the Ray Tye Medical Foundation, who donated $5000 to the Million Penny Project upon learning of the theft. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, the great philanthropist passed away in 2010.
One of the Million Penny Project’s additional largest donors was Norman Salsitz, a Polish Jew who was a Holocaust survivor. Salsitz was an author and successful businessman who emigrated to the U.S. in 1947 with his wife Amalie, also a survivor. When he watched the news story of the plight of the Groton-Dunstable students and their loss of half of their pennies during the summer of 2006, Salsitz lay dying in a Boston hospital. He asked his daughter Ester Dezube to make a donation of $6000 to the project “So we will never forget.” Salsitz died four days later.
More than two years of hard work collecting pennies and donations for a container followed. The pennies poured in, and 1.5 million were collected, the number of Jewish children killed during the Nazi holocaust. The memorial was dedicated on May 31, 2008. Salsitz’ daughter and Ray Tye were honored guests at the dedication of the original Memorial.
The original penny collection container was designed by an aquarium manufacturer to hold water. But copper pennies put about 2.5 times the pressure of water on the sides of the acrylic vessel. A year and a half after the dedication, in November 2009, pennies began pouring out into the lobby floor of the middle school. A new, stronger container was needed.
Groton resident Alex Woodle headed up the “phoenix” portion of the project, with Rockwell and Degen, charged with creating a new display case for the pennies. Woodle enlisted a friend, Groton resident and structural engineer Val Prest, to help design and oversee the manufacture of a new container that would sustain a penny pressure of 4.7 tons. Twelve thousand dollars had to be raised, a design had to be created, and a manufacturer had to be sourced. It took two and one-half years and the work of many volunteers of many but finally, the task is nearly completed.
With the new container in place, volunteers had to be assembled to move the pennies from storage in a giant wooden crate into cans and buckets, to sift the pennies to clean them of debris, and to finally load them into the giant memorial container, six feet tall by two feet deep and five feet long.
As volunteers were beginning to get organized Saturday morning, Rockwell asked everyone to stop for a moment and remember the reason behind the pennies -— that each one represented a Jewish child that was killed during the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. She told the volunteers that moving the pennies to the new container “.. is sacred work.”
“This project has been an inspiration to me, what education truly means, what community truly means, and what it means to empower young people,” she said. “Like a phoenix, rising from the ashes, the spirits of the murdered Jewish children are holding hands with new generations of young people reminding us all to value human life, democracy, and to stand up for what we believe is right even if we stand alone.”
The project has touched the other organizers and volunteers.
“I have been so inspired by Niki Rockwell and the students who were involved in the Penny Project and their dedication to it. From the original penny drive, to the stolen pennies, to the interviews with survivors, to the fundraising (including many Grotonfests and other events) the “unveiling” of the first penny container, the Anne Frank Play each year as a new group of kids dedicated themselves to the completion of the memorial and the commitment not to forget the 1.5 million Jewish children who were killed in the Holocaust… ” Degen said. “There were many opportunities to quit and the students always said ‘No.’ We are so fortunate to have such caring students in our community that are giving our town such an important gift.”
Woodle said the penny project was truly inspiring and that he enjoyed working with the students and their teachers. “I am very excited to see the culmination of all the volunteer work with the redesign and rebuilt penny tank soon to be a permanent memorial to the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust.”