“Symbols can make us think. Symbols can change the world. And sometimes, symbols are all we have to help us maintain our resolve. Even in our darkest, and our most tragic days. ~ Peter Schroeder
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the day that marks the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps 67 years ago. In honor of this special day, I decided to watch the award-winning documentary, “Paper Clips“.
The story starts with the voice of Linda Hooper, the principal of the middle school in Whitwell, Tennessee – a rural town about 24 miles west of Chattanooga. There are basically no minorities in Whitwell – everyone’s caucasian and protestant, there are less than a handful of black students, and no other people of color.
In 1998, the staff at the school decided they needed to teach the children about diversity and tolerance since there really was no diversity at all in their small town. They decided to teach the students about the Holocaust. During one of the classes, a student, trying to grasp the concept of the tragedy and unimaginable horror of six million Jews being slain said, “What is 6 million? I’ve never seen six million.” The staff realized they never had, either. They decided they needed to find something that they could collect six million of, that could be manageable, but could help the students and themselves see the magnitude of the number.
They did some research, and found that the paper clip was invented in Norway, and that During World War II, Norwegians wore paper clips on their clothes to demonstrate their opposition to Nazism and anti-Semitism. They decided to start the Paper Clips Project – to write to all the people they knew, explaining the project, to ask for donations of paper clips, to hopefully collect six million. The project became a yearly effort, with each new 8th grade group taking on the project where the last group left off.
At first, they got a great reaction from people, and were very encouraged – they got tens of thousands in the first few weeks – but then at one point when they were at a lull, they calculated how long it would take at that rate … and found it would take 10 years. They weren’t sure how to proceed, and what would become of their paperclip project. But then Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, journalists and White House correspondents, came to the town to learn more about the project, and the students.
The kids didn’t even know what “Germans” looked like – they asked their teachers, would they look strange? How did they act? This was their first real-life lesson in diversity. When Peter and Dagmar came to the school, they were warmly welcomed by the children, and shown all the hard work they’d been doing with the project, and all they’d been learning about the Holocaust. The Schroeders fell in love with the students and decided they’d do everything in their power to help them succeed.
They went back to Washington and contacted Dita Smith from the Washington Post. She found that the KKK was founded not far from Whitwell, and that was a life lesson for Smith herself – while it had been so easy to categorize so many from the south together as ignorant and racist, these children were showing that people are people, and education is what makes a difference in the world. The buzz about the Paper Clips Project, in the tiny town of Whitwell, Tennessee, began to grow.
Tom Brokaw reported on the project in 2011, and over a period of 6 weeks the students ended up with over 24,000,000 paper clips and 25,000 pieces of mail. People sent paper clips, but they also sent letters, and stories of loved ones lost in the Holocaust. The children got to read stories first hand, making even more real the lessons they had learned from books before. There was even a suitcase that arrived, all the way from Germany – inside were notes, all attached with paper clips – addressed to Anne Frank. A class of students like them, but in Germany, got together and each student had written a message asking for forgiveness and denouncing Hitler and the Nazi regime. It was an extremely touching gift, and a meaningful connection between the two groups of students that while with miles, languages, and cultures separating them, found themselves to be very similar to each other. A Holocaust survivor group from New York even came to visit the students – the whole town came out to greet them – and they shared their stories with everyone.
A while later, Linda Hooper was meeting with the staff on the paper clips project and they were trying to figure out what to do with all the paper clips they had collected – they had far surpassed their goal of 6 million – and they wanted to honor all of the stories they had heard, all the people lost, and to give them a memorial. Linda had a thought that she had pretty much dismissed as impossible – she thought what if they could get a real German cattle car from the time, to make a monument out of, and to place the paper clips in. Peter and Dagmar heard this, and decided again that they’d make the impossible, possible. After searching all over Germany, and hearing over and over that all the cars were destroyed after the war, they finally found one. They had it shipped to Whitwell, all the way from Germany.
The kids at Whitwell Middle school had collected over 29,000,000 paper clips. When it came time to fill the car, they wanted to honor as many people as they possibly could, and decided to put 11,000,000 paper clips in the car – 6 million for the Jews lost, and another 5 million for the homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others known to have died in the Holocaust. They restored the inside and roof of the car, and built memorials including paper clips and the suitcase from the kids in Germany inside the car. They also planted a garden around it, and decorated the space with sculptures and paintings of butterflies – symbols of freedom. The car and garden stand as a memorial today, and the kids from Whitwell teach children from other schools all they’ve learned about the Holocaust, but also diversity, tolerance, and how even small things, when joined together, can be an amazing force for good.
“I think that there’s a far greater power than the people at Whitland Middle School in charge of this project … and if not you tell me how we got this far.”
~ Linda Hooper