Simon Saks, a Holocaust survivor, rolls the one-millionth penny collected for The Penny Project. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Holocaust lesson one penny at a time

  • February 29, 2012

Mississauga, Ont. - Wrapping your head around a number like 13 million can be a daunting task to say the least. But one history teacher from St. Marcellinus Secondary School is trying to make such a figure a reality for students while at the same time teaching them about the Holocaust.

It’s been three years since Susan Carey initiated The Penny Project, which aims to collect and roll one penny for each of the lives lost in the Holocaust.  The money, all $130,000, will be used to fund genocide education programs.

“I had a student a number of years ago who said ‘But miss, what’s the Holocaust?’ and ‘Who’s Anne Frank?’ and I went, ‘Uh this isn’t good. We’ve got to do something not just about the issues involved in genocide but also about the scope of it. How do you illustrate 13 million people?’ ” said Carey. “I decided that we would use the penny because nobody wants it. It gets kicked to the curb, it’s something governments keep trying to get rid of and the result is that this is very symbolic of the victims. They were pretty much treated the same way.”

On Feb. 23, surrounded by The Penny Project committee, members of the media and honoured guests, Carey witnessed a milestone as the millionth penny was wrapped. 

“I never guessed that when we started this in 2008 that we would ever actually make it here and I’m so pleased,” said Carey as she addressed the group after the shaky hand of Simon Saks, a Holocaust survivor, tucked the one-millionth penny into its brown paper roll.

“Being a survivor, I’m so happy for what you’ve done. It makes me feel like a new person just to know that somebody is thinking about some of the people that died,” said Saks, who was seven when the Nazis invaded his Polish homeland. “I  want to thank you and Mrs. Carey for doing what you did.”

Quiet words of gratitude, which came out clear despite Saks choking back tears, directed towards more than just those gathered in design tech room 216 that afternoon.

For while this project began at St. Marcellinus, pennies of support have poured in from across the country and beyond.

Aside from the pennies Carey has received, her project gained immediate support from Scotiabank’s main branch in Oakville which agreed to donate all 260,000 rolls needed.

This kind of strengthening support does not come without its own challenges.

“I never knew how heavy  pennies could be,” said Carey, who seemed surprised to learn that the one million pennies already collected and rolled weigh more than two Honda Civics tipping the scales at 2,835 kg. 

Luckily Carey receives a helping hand with the coppers every Wednesday after school from students, sometimes as many as 50, who pitch in with their rolling skills.

“I get a lot of kids coming out. Sometimes so much that I cannot keep them all in one room, I have to have them out in the hall,” said Carey, adding they are well on the way to the second million as she gestured towards a mountain of coins still to be rolled. “This is just a small portion of the pennies we have that have not yet been rolled. We are going to be very busy for the next couple of weeks.”

Marta Jesionowska for two years has been chair of The Penny Project committee.

“There are less and less veterans that can tell us their story. It’s not enough to just learn it from the history books,” said the Grade 12 student. “In this project I got to meet so many incredible people, veterans and survivors of the Holocaust. They really made history come alive for me so it’s really personal once you get involved.

“Genocides are still happening all over the world even though after World War II, the world leaders basically said they would never let something like this happen again. It is so important to educate our generation about it so we can put an end to genocides.”

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