CHARLES TOWN – The Hole Punch Project, the work that’s helping Washington High students understand the terrible toll of the Holocaust, is at the halfway mark.

So far, students have created 4.5 million paper holes toward a goal of hole-punched circles to represent all 9 million men, women and children whose lives ended in the Nazi death camps.

Jason Smith, a 10th-grade English teacher at Washington began the Hole Punch Project in 2015 as his students read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, whose book details his experiences with his father in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

“Most students had been exposed to the Holocaust in fictional accounts,” Smith said. “Wiesel’s book is a firsthand personal account. It is very powerful.”

Smith also showed students the documentary, “Paper Clips,” the story of middle school students in Whitehall, Tenn., who created a monument to Holocaust victims by collecting paper clips from all around the world.

The project has won two $500 grants from the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation for supplies.

After school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the students involved meet in Smith’s classroom to punch holes in paper that’s the color of the different cloth badges Nazis assigned –yellow for Jews, blue for forced laborers, pink for homosexuals, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, green for criminals, red for political prisoners, and brown and black for nonconformists, vagrants and other groups.

Students count the paper circles, place them in sandwich bags, log the numbers and dates in a notebook and then store the bags in plastic tubs.

The students now are concentrating on punching out yellow holes, symbolizing the 4.8 million Jewish adults and 1.2 million Jewish children killed in the camps.

The circles will eventually be mounted for a display at the high school along with a quote from Wiesel: “To those who died, we remember; to those who survived, we hear you: to future generations, let us never forget.”

Smith said he hopes the project won’t be completed for another three years. “This isn’t a sprint – it’s a marathon,” he said.

Smith also wants the Hole Punch Project to encourage tolerance,” he said. “Students are meeting people they’ve never been friends with. Seniors get to know sophomores. It’s kind of a social club, but with meaning behind it.”

Seniors Holly Goben and Bailey Miller, both 17, remain involved just as they’ve been since taking Smith’s class when they were sophomores.

“In the beginning, I just wanted to be part of a club,” Goben said. “Taking Mr. Smith’s class and being friends with Bailey, I thought I’d give the Hole Punch Project a try.”

She has since been watching YouTube videos of Holocaust survivors.

“All the stories are different, but there is forgiveness there,” Goben said. “They don’t hate the Nazis. What they went through is unimaginable, but they forgive.”

Both young women would like to continue to pursue their study of the Holocaust, including someday visiting sites like the home of Anne Frank, who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and also Auschwitz, the infamous death camp in Poland.

“I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust. It’s such a big part of history,” Miller said. “The book ‘Night’ really gave us all a sense of what people in the camps were feeling.”

Smith said about 300 students have taken part in the project since it started. Students from other schools including Hedgesville High and Shepherdstown Middle have joined in the effort, along with local Girl Scout troops.

A display of statistics showing how many people died in the camps and pictures from the Holocaust line the wall of Smith’s classroom.

“Our job is to remember all those people,” Smith said.

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