CRESTVIEW, FL — The Holocaust is more than just a tragic piece of history to a group of eighth-graders at Shoal River Middle School.

It’s a lesson in the depths of human strength and human cruelty — and a call to action.

A few weeks ago, armed with an ever-increasing knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust, the students decided to honor the 1.5 million children who lost their lives by collecting a penny for each of them.

“I’ve got kids totally on fire,” said language arts teacher Pauline Buis who showed the students the film that inspired the project.

A little more than two weeks into the process, they’ve collected 4,400 pennies, said Alex Messick, who came up with the penny project and counts the cents.

They know their goal is still far away, but they are determined.

They don’t want cash or other coins because it’s not about the money — it’s about honoring the children.

“Bills and other coins will make the cash grow faster, but it doesn’t have the same message and value,” Messick wrote in a letter to his teacher after she suggested collecting all forms of money.

The students’ enthusiasm quickly spread. Teachers in almost every subject have incorporated the Holocaust in their lessons.

In addition to the traditional history lessons in social studies, they’ve learned about the experiments conducted on the Jews in science class and studied statistics in math class of the millions of people placed in concentration camps.

Band students learned how Adolf Hitler made Jews play cheerful music as others were forced into the gas chambers, and that Jewish composers wrote music with an eclectic mix of instruments because they were the only instruments available to them.

But, it’s what they’re reading in language arts that has really brought the Holocaust home.

“You hear 6 million Jews died, but you don’t really understand,” said Erin Saueressig.

The moment it became real, she said, was when she started reading Anne Frank’s diary. Frank was a Jewish teenager who chronicled the years her family spent in hiding from the Germans.

“From her perspective, we can relate,” agreed Zach Weygandt. “Just reading (about) the Holocaust, it was sad, but actually seeing it from her perspective is more touching.”

On Wednesday a group of students, with copies of “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” beside them, made posters to hang around the school to get others involved in their project.

The students know it is unlikely they will collect 1.5 million pennies before the end of the school year, but they hope the effort will continue into next year and will become the legacy of the first group of students to graduate from Shoal River Middle School.

When the goal is reached, the money will be donated to create a memorial butterfly garden for Annelise Adams, the school’s attendance secretary who died Feb. 15. The garden will be used as an outdoor classroom where eighth graders will teach other students about the Holocaust.

To contact the students about their project or to donate, e-mail them at srmspennyproject@yahoo.com.