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Paper Clips

October 1, 2015

PCsAs a teacher, I know I have ‘changed lives’ because of the former pupils who I sometimes see or who send me Christmas cards.

In the rural, blue-collar Tennessee community of Whitwell, a middle-school class attempts to gauge the magnitude of World War II’s Holocaust by collecting paper clips, each of which represents a human life lost in the Nazis’ slaughter of Jews. The idea came in 1998 from three of the teachers at the school and was completed in their eighth grade classrooms.

Whitwell is a Christian town of 1,600, some 25 miles from Chattanooga (and not far from Dayton, site of the Scopes Trial in 1925) with no Jews, five blacks, and one Hispanic. Linda Hooper, a dynamic and articulate principal of the middle school for nine years and the dominant, connective voice throughout the film, describes her town as “poor but not depressed” ever since coal mining went bust at the end of the 1960s.

The students’ research found that Norwegians wore paper clips as a silent protest and symbol of resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II. It was this simple idea that eventually, and quite unintentionally, turned into a worldwide phenomenon, drawing international media attention and letters of support from literally every continent.

Two journalists from Washington D.C soon heard about their efforts and wanted to see for themselves what was going on down in Whitwell. When they discovered the enormity of the project, they contacted a friend of theirs at the Washington Post. The reporter there traveled down to Whitwell herself and wrote an article for the paper. This was then noticed by NBC Nightly News, which also ran a report on the children’s efforts.

PCs 2Upon seeing the report, a flood of attention, and paper clips, fell on the small Tennessee town (which leads to one of the film’s most amusing scenes involving the flabbergasted Postmaster). Holocaust survivors travelled to see for themselves what was going on, and were invited to speak at the school.

I was more impressed by the single paper clips with letters attached than with the bulk, commercial packages.

They didn’t just learn about Jews. They included Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals.

The “Paper Clips Project” extended over several years and in 2001 the school dedicated a Children’s Holocaust Memorial, which includes an authentic German railcar filled with a portion of the more than 30 million paper clips they eventually collected.

The film takes viewers from the initial stages of the project and follows it through to its fruition, as the project generates an outpouring of support from around the world as word spreads. When all was said and done, the students had amassed not only millions of paperclips, but thousands of letters from 19 countries and 49 states, as well as paper-clip contributions from the likes of Tom Hanks, Bill Cosby, Tom Bosley, George W. Bush, Steven Spielberg, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton and many German citizens.

The project extended over several years and, in 2001, Whitwell dedicated a unique Holocaust memorial railcar, filled with paper clips and dedicated in an emotional ceremony on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

I particularly like it that, while 9/11 was going on,the German train  carriage was making its way to the school.

PCs 3student “What is six million? I’ve never seen six million anything,”

“the scariest thing in the world is to be a teacher. Why? Because you can have so much impact.”

“You make us think!”

Hooper: “We’re ordinary people.”

Samuel Sitko: Future generations will have to learn about the Holocaust from the textbooks. We are the eyewitnesses that can, to a certain degree, tell you what took place.

“You are living proof that each and every one of us can make a difference and do his (or her) part to share a better world. When you ask the young and innocent, they will do the right thing. With tears in my eyes, I bow my head before you. Shalom.” Lena L. Ginter, Holocaust survivor (to the students of Whitwell Middle School)

“I just can’t wait until I get to college and they ask me if you’ve ever had a life-changing moment. The first thing that’s going to come out of my mouth is going to be the Whitwell Middle School Holocaust project. I just cannot wait until that moment happens.” Whitwell Middle School student

Linda Hooper “Your history as a death car is erased. From here on you are a car of life.”

“You must not forget”

“Don’t let the memory disappear.”

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