The first time Sandy Baumwald heard about The Daffodil Project, it was from her brother, Ronnie Mayer. One day out of the blue, Mayer called her and asked if she wanted to come down to Brookhaven from her home in Athens and help plant some daffodils.
Baumwald didn’t know about The Daffodil Project, but she still made the trek down to Brookhaven for a Nov. 7 planting at Ashford Park. She would later learn what the project was and realize how much of a personal connection her family had.
The Dunwoody-based Daffodil Project is an initiative that aspires to plant 1.5 million daffodils in memory of children who died during the Holocaust, essentially creating a “living Holocaust memorial,” according to the project’s website. When Mayer heard about the project, he couldn’t wait to volunteer to help.
“I jumped all over it,” Mayer said.
The project meant to much to Mayer because his and Baumwald’s uncle, Kurt Mayer, is one of those 1.5 million children who died during the Holocaust, or the genocide of Jewish people during World War II.
“The shock and horror of what happened, I’ve kind of lived with,” Baumwald said of what happened to her uncle. “But it’s only been in the last 10 years or so that I really have dedicated all my resources to finding out exactly, almost to the day, what happened.”
In her research, Baumwald found that the siblings’ father, Hans Mayer, and his younger brother Kurt were born in Neuwied, Germany in the 1920s. According to Baumwald, when Hans was around 13 or 14 years old, classmates began bullying him in school because of his Jewish heritage. In 1937, the family sent Hans to live with great aunt in Savannah, Ga. so he could finish out his education. Kurt stayed behind with his family.
A year later on Nov. 9 and 10 of 1938, the Nazis ransacked Jewish homes and businesses in an event called Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass.” Baumwald said afterwards, her uncle and his family were taken to Cologne, Germany, where they were put to work building a highway.
Baumwald’s research led her to July of 1942, when she says her uncle, grandfather and grandmother were put on a train. While she believes her grandmother died before they arrived at their destination, she said her uncle and grandfather were executed in a village called Malytrotensk.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said. “That’s the story of my family.”
The Ashford Park planting is not the only Daffodil Project event that’s taken place in Brookhaven as of late. According to Steve Peters, chair of the Parks and Recreation Coalition (PARC) Brookhaven, PARC Brookhaven has been encouraging parks within the city to host daffodil plantings. In 2021, plantings have taken place at three parks – Blackburn Park, Ashford Park, and Brookhaven Park. Volunteers, including Baumwald and Mayer, planted 500 bulbs at each park.
Andrea Videlefsky, the president of Am Yisrael Chai, the parent nonprofit organization of The Daffodil Project, said once this planting season finishes up in January 2022, the organization will have planted just over 700,000 daffodils since the organization began in 2010.
“Steve Peters has given us a wonderful opportunity to plant in the Brookhaven parks, and he has a vision for this extending to many, many more parks in the Brookhaven area,” she said.
The daffodil was a symbolic choice, said Videlefsky.
“The reason we chose the daffodil is because the shape and the color are symbolic of the yellow stars that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust,” she said. “So the daffodil is like the six-pointed shape, and the color yellow is also the color of remembrance.”
Videlefsky said the group tries to incorporate Holocaust education and awareness within the planting process. The gardens are outfitted with plaques explaining what The Daffodil Project is, and volunteers usually bring along bios of children who died in the Holocaust along with them.
“When we plant, we usually ask people to step forward and take a bulb and also take one of the bios that kind of describes the life of a child who died during the Holocaust. And in that way, it sort of makes it more of a personal learning experience, and they can relate to that particular child,” Videlefsky said. “It’s very hard to conceptualize 1.5 billion. This makes it a personal way of learning about it.”
But for folks like Mayer and Baumwald, the connection is already personal. During the Ashford Park planting, the siblings dedicated their daffodils to their Uncle Kurt.
“It doesn’t really hit you until it hits you. And when it does, you feel it,” Mayer said of the planting and dedication experience. “You get a little teary-eyed.”
Baumwald said while she was touched by the dedication and the planting, the experience wasn’t necessarily a joyous one, but rather an important reminder of the loss.
“People I know that are children of Holocaust survivors, you grow up very differently. The world is an evil place, and there’s fear and there’s not a lot of joy,” Baumwald said. “So it wasn’t something like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been waiting my entire life for this.’ It was nice, I was happy to help. As many times as I can tell this story, I will.”