It’s no surprise that Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., both have Holocaust memorials.
But most people wouldn’t expect to find one in rural Whitwell, Tenn., a predominately Christian, two-traffic-light town with a population of 1,600 and no Jews.
Yet, a German railcar sits in the yard of Whitwell Middle School, housing The Children’s Holocaust Memorial.
The story behind this memorial involves teachers who wanted to teach their students about diversity and intolerance; teenagers who were shocked by the atrocities of the Holocaust and sympathized with its victims; and a lot of paper clips.
“Paper Clips,” a documentary about this memorial, premieres in Scottsdale on Friday, Feb. 11, at Harkins Camelview 5 Theatres. After the film, Valley resident and Holocaust survivor Helen Handler will comment on the film and talk about her experiences during World War II.
The story begins in 1998, when David Smith, assistant principal of Whitwell Middle School, attended a teacher’s conference in nearby Chattanooga, and was inspired to start a program to teach students about the Holocaust.
He brought up the idea to principal Linda Hooper, who then implemented an after-school Holocaust education class for eighth-graders. Language arts teacher Sandra Roberts was chosen to teach the class; 16 students enrolled.
“Our goal was to teach children what happens when intolerance reigns and when prejudice goes unchecked,” Roberts says in the film.
The students read books, saw photographs and watched films about the Holocaust.
To visualize what “six million” looked like, a student suggested collecting six million of one object to help grasp the concept. After conducting research on the Internet, one student discovered that during the Holocaust, after the Nazis invaded Norway and began prosecuting Jews, non-Jewish Norwegians protested Nazis’ forcing Jews to wear yellow stars on their clothing by wearing paper clips on their lapels.
Thus, the beginning of the Paper Clip Project.
Within a few weeks, the students collected more than 1,000 paper clips from relatives and neighbors.
Next, they wrote politicians, actors and athletes, many of whom sent letters and paper clips. Students received letters and paper clips from actor Henry Winkler, whose parents were Holocaust survivors; President George W. Bush; former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush; actor Tom Hanks; director Steven Spielberg and several others.
A Web site brought in hundreds of letters and paper clips, but by the end of the year, the students had collected only 160,000 paper clips.
In fall 1999, journalists Dagmar and Peter Schroeder saw the Web site the same day a friend of theirs – Lena Gitter, a Holocaust survivor in her 90s who lives in Washington, D.C. – did. Following Gittler’s “order” to do something about the paper clip project, the Schroeders contacted Whitwell Middle School and wrote articles and columns for a group of German and Austrian newspapers that employed the Schroeders as White House correspondents. The articles included requests that German and Austrian readers send in paper clips to the students, with explanations why they were sending them.
“Being Germans ourselves, and gentiles, we felt a moral obligation to ‘spread the word’; that ‘little’ acts of intolerance in the end can lead to murder and mass murder,” the Schroeders wrote in an e-mail to Jewish News, after being asked why they became involved in the project. “We realize that we are part of the last generation that can talk to survivors and give their memories a voice before these voices are silenced forever.”
In the first three weeks after the articles were published, the students received 2,000 letters from people ages 6-98, and more than 46,000 paper clips, according to the Schroeders’ book about the project, “Six Million Paper Clips: The Making of a Children’s Holocaust Memorial” (Kar-Ben Publishing, $7.95 paperback).
In 2000, the Schroeders published “Das Büroklammer-Projekt” (“The Paper Clip Project”) in German. Washington Post Editor Dita Smith read the book and visited Whitwell in 2001.
The project gained national attention after an article appeared in the Washington Post in April 2001. After the article and a broadcast on NBC “Nightly News” with Tom Brokaw, and other newscasts, the number of paper clips collected increased from 150,000 to 24 million in six weeks.
Eventually, the post office requested that the school pick up their own mail because the letter carrier couldn’t deliver all the letters and packages.
Parents and other members of the community helped the students count the paper clips. Many of these paper clips were attached to letters telling stories of family members or friends who had died in the Holocaust. According to the film, the school received 25,000 pieces of mail, which each went through a similar process: Letters were sorted by state or country and addresses were hand-recorded. “Every piece of paper, regardless of size, is kept and put in a plastic sleeve, averaging filling up a three-inch binder every two days,” Roberts says in the film.
The Washington Post article caught the attention of Ari Pinchot, development director for The Johnson Group, based in McLean, Va. He showed it to director Joe Fab, and Fab approached Hooper, the school’s principal, with the idea of filming a documentary about the project.
At first, Hooper was resistant because she didn’t want to disrupt the children. But Fab convinced her that the project “was bigger than what could be covered in one article in the paper or two minutes on the news.”
“We felt that doing a film would be able to capture the real depth of this and put it out there both as an example and to pay the proper respect to what the project was,” Fab told Jewish News.
Hooper eventually agreed, but Fab says her agreement had a warning attached: “If I let you make this film, and if you make my children look like a bunch of rednecks, I will eat your heart for breakfast.”
“Once Linda agreed, the school and the town followed,” Fab says.
In May 2001, The Johnson Group filmed a visit by Holocaust survivors to a Whitwell church and the school. The award-winning documentary, which has been shown at film festivals nationally and will be widely released by Miramax this month, was filmed May 2001-January 2003.
At Whitwell, containers of all sizes filled with millions of paper clips took up space in closets and classrooms. One evening over dinner, Roberts, Hooper, Smith and the Schroeders discussed creating a memorial with the paper clips. The conversation led to the decision to obtain a German railcar to house the paper clips.
The Schroeders traveled to Germany and visited several rail yards to find one. After an intensive search, the couple found Car Number 011-003, a railcar built in 1917 that had been abandoned in 1945 in the Polish town of Sobibor, not far from a Nazi extermination camp. The director of the German Railroad Museum agreed to sell the Schroeders the car for what the museum paid.
The Schroeders raised enough money to purchase the railcar and convinced the German Rail Company to move the railcar for free. The train started its 300-mile long journey through Germany, then traveled 4,000-miles on the Norwegian ship, Blue Sky, to the port of Baltimore.
Co-director Elliot Berlin first saw the railcar at 3:15 a.m., when he walked alone on the Blue Sky before filming. It “was kind of spooky,” he says.
The railcar arrived on Sept. 9, 2001. Two days later, on Sept. 11, it was attached to a big diesel locomotive and left for Tennessee.
The significance of that date was not lost on the town of Whitwell, as they mourned with the rest of the country.
The American rail company CSX transported the railcar for free from Baltimore to Chattanooga, as well as donated the ties, the pouring of the concrete and the tracks – which were made in Tennessee during World War II, Berlin says. “The project had the ability to inspire people in interesting ways.”
In Whitwell, more than 400 students greeted the railcar. Community volunteers built a ramp, planted a garden and helped move the 11 million paper clips to the railcar – 11 million paper clips were placed in the railcar behind glass partitions to represent the six million Jews plus the five million other victims of the Holocaust.
The memorial was dedicated on Nov. 9, 2001, with nearly 2,000 attendees – more than the town’s population. Whitwell representatives spoke, the orchestra from the University of Chattanooga performed, the school choir sang and children from an Atlanta Jewish day school recited the Kaddish.
Since the dedication, schools around the country take field trips to the memorial and contact Whitwell Middle School to find out how to start their own Holocaust project.
In all, the students collected more than 30 million paper clips – those that weren’t used in the memorial are sent to other schools that want to start their own Holocaust project, Fab says. For instance, the students will send a school a “shtetl box,” which contains a small town’s history with the number of paper clips that represent the numbers killed in that town. “Instead of looking at the whole of the Holocaust, you’re looking at one community,” Fab says.
Fab calls “Paper Clips” the most important project he’s ever worked on.
“It was an incredibly rich experience for me and much greater than any other project that I’ve ever been on,” he says. “You can’t go to Whitwell and interact with those children or the other people in the town and not be deeply affected.
“They are doing what I think we all want education to do.”
Besides learning about the Holocaust, the students study other historical and contemporary examples of genocide and learn about other examples of intolerance and hatred.
“Their teachers are bringing them up with a great level of responsibility and helping them grow as citizens of the planet,” Fab says. “They live a set of values that they are being taught by their parents and by the school.”
He lists two main reasons why he feels this film is important. “It matters to me on the level of people being open to each other regardless of their background and orientation in life. The second area is what it says about what’s possible in education.”
The Schroeders describe two aspects of the project that made the most impact on them: “First, the simplicity of the project in demonstrating the enormity of the mass murder by collecting one paper clip for every victim so that the students could visually grasp what ‘millions of victims’ actually mean.”
Secondly, the “innocence” of the students, ages 13-15, who lived in a place with no diversity who never met a Jew or a German. “Their dedication, and that of their teachers, demonstrated to us that everyone can start ‘something small’ that can evolve in ‘something very big’ that can make a difference.”
This article first appeared on jewishaz.com.