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The Paper Clip Project: Lessons From Tennessee

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Most Jews living in the large urban areas of our country know little about non-Jews who reside in, say, rural Tennessee. And the people who live there probably know little about Jews and about the lives we lead. And though they’ve for the most part heard of the events of the Holocaust, it’s not a part of their life, or their history. For some, it’s just a word.

So what happens when a middle school in the Marion County community of Whitwell, Tennessee, a former coal-mining town with barely more than 1, 600 residents, all of them Christian, tries to teach its students about the Holocaust?

“Paper Clips,” a documentary filmed over two years, is the important story of an educational initiative, begun in October 1998, that evolved into something greater and unexpected when a student in the Holocaust course at Whitwell asked the question that we might all ask: “What is six million? I’ve never seen that before.”

Who has?

It reminds me of Yom Hashoah one year when I was in elementary school. I was in fourth grade, the school was SAR Academy, and throughout the day they were going to read over the PA system many names of those who perished. I remember sitting mid-morning, part of a group discussion with the associate principal, Rabbi Yonah Fuld.

“How long would it take,” he asked us “to read each of the names of those who were killed?” I raised my hand pretty quickly, and was the first to be called on. I’m not sure what amount I volunteered, but suffice it to say that I was way off. The answer was in months, many months, and I had responded in hours.

In 1999 the Whitwell school administration suggested to the students – eighth graders, voluntarily taking the Holocaust course once a week after school – that they would much better comprehend the huge number of lives lost in the Holocaust if they found an object to collect. Given the numbers, the objects needed to be small. The students did some research and discovered that the paper clip was invented in Norway and worn on the lapel during World War II as a sign of patriotism and resistance, and support for the Jews. Paper clips also have obvious symbolic value: they connect things, hold things together.

The students started to bring in paper clips and spread the word. Articles appeared in newspapers. The paper clips arrived, even 100,000 in one shipment. But the excitement at the inception of the project was followed by weeks of inactivity and a sense that the goal would not be met or, at best, take 10 years, according to one teacher’s assessment.

Two German White House correspondents, husband and wife Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, heard about the project from an elderly Holocaust survivor and visited the school. They publicized the story, and soon began writing a book. Media attention in the U.S. and abroad further promoted the students’ efforts. Paper clips flowed in – eventually 30 million, and with them more than 30, 000 letters. The local post office was overwhelmed. Volunteers helped with sorting the mail and cataloging the paper clips and letters received. Students came in early and left late to handle the volume and respond by e-mail and by letter as needed.

At the principal’s suggestion for what she thought would be an appropriate place to store the paper clips, the Schroeders began a search while in Germany to locate and obtain an authentic railroad transport car from the 1940’s. At a railroad museum north of Berlin they found what they needed. It was built in 1917, used in the transportation of victims of the Holocaust, and remained after the war near Chelmno, Poland. The journalists were invited to see the rail car, but told it was “not for sale.” The Schroeders, true to form, prevailed, and the film documents the travels of this single car as it moved from Berlin to the Baltimore port, and then by land to Whitwell. The camera shows the weighty box being lowered down gingerly by crane to its final resting place on a strip of track in Tennessee. Well over a thousand people attended the dedication ceremony of The Children’s Holocaust Memorial in November of 2001, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

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