Paper Clip Holocaust Project becomes unique history lesson
By: Glenda H. Caudle Special Features Editor
By GLENDA H. CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
Why were eighth-grade students from a little mountain coal mining town in southeast Tennessee “hoarding” paper clips?
The answer lies in the brutal murder of 6 million people with whom they shared nothing.
Except their humanity.
And that is — after all — everything.
Whitwell Middle School principal Linda Hooper revealed the story behind the Paper Clip Holocaust Project at Thursday night’s annual Obion County Distinguished Speakers Foundation dinner at Hampton Centré in Union City. She began her explanation with a short film and ended her moving tale to a standing ovation.
In 1998, Mrs. Hooper took a good look at her student body and discovered they all looked pretty much the same — overwhelmingly Caucasian, hailing mostly from the bottom half of the socio-economic level, boasting family histories of limited education and basically unfamiliar with anything beyond the boundaries of their own county.
“My kids needed to get a broader look at life,” she told her Thursday night audience.
And so began the effort that would not only accomplish her goal but would forever change a community.
Tapping in to the possibilities made available by the Internet, she offered one of the teachers in her school the opportunity to conduct an after-school class and signed up 30 eighth-graders — and an adult from each family represented. “Parents are a child’s first teacher,” she said by way of explaining her insistence on their involvement.
Because she had learned of a project related to the Holocaust that was aimed at students in the Whitwell School age range from assistant principal David Smith and because the study provided an opportunity to learn both facts from history, lessons in sociology, psychology and religion and a chance to consider the human potential for good and evil, she determined that her students would take on that particular challenge.
Their first assignment was to read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, a Romanian Jew who was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 when he was a teenager and whose father died at the Buchenwald camp.
The experience was soul-shaking for children who had little or no knowledge that such evil had flourished unchecked in a “civilized” society only a few years before they were born.
From there, the class began to explore the lives of others — both those who suffered in the Nazi camps and those who tried to rescue them.
Woven into their discussions were more “timely” facts that reinforced for the children the knowledge that whatever their circumstances, they enjoyed far more than millions of others around the world who live daily in captivity to extreme poverty, ignorance, illness, deprivation and lack of religious freedom.
The study might have ended when classes dismissed for the summer. Students might have gone on their way more aware of historical facts and more “connected” to a wider world. And that would have been a worthwhile conclusion to the project.
But something pressed Mrs. Hooper to extend the study to a new group of eighth-graders.
And one of them made a statement that gave birth to the Paper Clip Project.
“I don’t get 6 million,” he said. “Do you?”
And Mrs. Hooper had to admit she really did not.
Despite the fact that she had a wider knowledge of the world and had traveled to places where six million people were actually said to live, she found she could not quite grasp what 6 million might look like.
So when her students suggested collecting 6 million of “something” as a hands-on learning experience, she agreed — with a stipulation: The collection had to be meaningful.
A week later, the eighth-graders reported they were ready to begin collecting paper clips. Their research had taught them the humble but useful paper clip was invented by a Norwegian Jew and that many of his fellow Norwegians who were Christians had worn the bent pieces of metal on their lapels as a silent form of protest during those turbulent years when 6 million Jews and 5 million others the Nazis disdained and feared were being forcibly rounded up and were perishing in the death camps and at the hands of their tormenters.
Students had also composed a letter they were ready to send to prominent political figures and celebrities, explaining their desire to “grasp” the sheer number of Jewish lives sacrificed and requesting that the recipients send along paper clips to aid the project. They also registered their proposal with the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Paper clips began to trickle in. By the end of that year, they had 160,000.
And then a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor — Lena Gittler — who had never been to Whitwell, but had learned of the project, insisted two journalists of her acquaintance, Dagmar and Peter Schroeder, must check out the story. Their trip to Tennessee resulted in several articles in German and Austrian newspapers for whom they were Washington correspondents. And suddently paperclip offerings began arriving in Whitwell from overseas — about 46,000 of them.
In 2000, the Schroeders published a book, “The Paper Clip Project,” in German and Washington Post editor Dita Smith read the volume and determined to visit Whitwell herself. Once her first-hand account was published, Tom Brokaw picked up the story for the NBC Nightly News.
Suddenly, the number of paper clips the students were counting and dutifully recording jumped from 150,000 to 24 million over a six-week period.
Some clips came in large batches; others were singletons.
Many were accompanied by notes that further expanded the students’ head and heart knowledge.
Along the way, a small documentary film company in McLean, Va., put their own unique spin on the effort and brought the story to life without a script, actors or drama coaches — just 200 hours of film in Real Time.
Whitwell’s eighth-graders simply quit counting when they reached 30 million paper clips and 40,000 documents and letters.
But they didn’t abandon the project.
Instead, they raised it to another level.
With help from the Schroeders who undertook a trip to Germany, the children acquired a rail car that had actually been abandoned near a Nazi extermination camp in Poland at the end of World War II. Their paper clip project is housed in the railcar, which was built in 1917, on the Whitwell School property.
Visitors come to see it every day.
And it speaks to them, as it does to the children and their families who have lived the project for 10 years.
“You can hear the voices,” Mrs. Hooper told her audience Thursday night as she finished her story. “Those voices speak to the power of choice. And that railroad car that symbolized death and destruction has become a symbol of hope and love in a community that could have refused to support (the project). Instead (the children of Whitwell) have learned they ‘can do’ and they are powerful and they can influence others,” she said.
And if they are ever tempted to forget what inpact they might have, a rail relic packed with millions of simple pieces of twisted metal stands as silent testimony, attaching them in intangible ways to history that must live on.
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 5.23.08