Butterflies and the Holocaust

Butterflies and the Holocaust

What do butterflies have to do with the Holocaust? They are very much connected, in more ways than one.

Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross visited the Maidenek concentration camp in 1946. When she got to the children’s barracks, it was particularly sorrowful, with toys and shoes strewn about, but there was something else, too. The walls were covered with hundreds of butterflies, scratched and etched with fingernails and pebbles. She said it took her 25 years of working with dying patients to fully understand what this meant.

The children knew they were going to die and were leaving a message of hope; their bodies might not make it, but the butterflies represented their immortal souls. They would live on in a different form.

To find out more about this seemingly incongruous connection between the butterfly and the Holocaust, read my book, The Spirit of Butterflies: Myth, Magic and Art. (pages 64 to 71)

Excerpts from The Spirit of Butterflies: Myth, Magic and Art:

I once met a woman who had been a child of four at the start of World War II. Her Jewish family had fled Germany and was hidden by French farmers. Near the house in which they stayed, down a six-foot embankment, was a creek where the children were allowed to play among the flowers and rocks and fast flowing water. And here were butterflies. Sometimes the children would catch them, show them to the adults, and then let the butterflies fly free. These were the happiest years for her, which she remembers as full of beauty, freedom, and laughter. In later years, she would feel guilty about that time of her life, because she was happy while so many millions were suffering and dying. When the children came up from the stream, they would bring with them more than colorful butterflies and laughter. They brought joy and hope and a glimmer of light to their families and that gave them all courage, a hint of normalcy, a special moment in the midst of a dark war. Without the children’s laughter and lightness, there would have been only despair. The butterfly is the symbol of that light. When we see a butterfly, it stirs the magic and wonder within, awakening and stirring our hearts and spirits. And a world without butterflies would be a world without hope.


Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a doctor widely known for her work on death and dying, wrote in her book The Wheel of Life, A Memoir of Living and Dying, about her journey to the site of the Maidanek concentration camp in Poland after World War II. She visited the children’s barracks, where she encountered clothes and little shoes tossed aside, but she also saw something that at first surprised and then amazed her. Carved into the walls with pebbles and fingernails were butterflies, hundreds and hundreds of them. Spellbound by the sight of butterflies drawn on the wall, she couldn’t help but wonder why they were there and what they meant. Twenty-five years later, after listening to hundreds of terminally ill patients, she finally realized that the prisoners in the camps must have known that they were going to die. “They knew that soon they would become butterflies. Once dead, they would be out of that hellish place. Not tortured anymore. Not separated from their families. Not sent to gas chambers. None of this gruesome life mattered anymore. Soon they would leave their bodies the way a butterfly leaves its cocoon. And I realized that was the message they wanted to leave for future generations. . . .It also provided the imagery that I would use for the rest of my career to explain the process of death and dying.”