Monday, January 17, 2005

Looking at Paper Clips in a New Way

I just came from seeing a remarkable documentary called Paper Clips at the old Avalon Theater. The story takes place in Whitwell, Tennessee, a small town of 1500 people about 20 miles northeast of Chattanooga. Whitwell is rather homogeneous – no Catholics, no Jews, very few blacks and hispanics. In 1999 the 8th grade class at Whitwell Middle School adopted a project to study the Holocaust in an effort to teach diversity and tolerance.

Upon learning about the fate of 6 million Jews, one student said that he couldn’t imagine what 6 million of anything would look like. They came up with the idea of collecting 6 million paper clips to symbolize the Holocaust victims. They learned that Norwegians during WW II wore paper clips to show their solidarity with the Jews who were being forced to wear yellow stars. The students wrote letters to everyone they could think of. But the project stalled at around 150,000 and they calculated that it was going to take about 10 years to reach their goal at the current rate. Then Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, former White House correspondents, who were also German, became involved in the project. Their publicity, an article in the Washington Post, and a piece on the NBC nightly news fueled the collection effort. Over the next year, the students collected over 21 million paper clips and volumes of correspondence and stories which accompanied them. They received letters from current and ex-presidents of the US. They began to get contributions from all over the world. One class in Germany assembled a suitcase in which they enclosed letters to Anne Frank, expressing their sadness over what had happened during the war. At one point a group of Holocaust survivors traveled to Whitwell to see what the children had done and to give their own first-had accounts of what had happened. The film was interspersed with heart-felt letters read by their authors.

As the collection efforts reached their end, the principal of the school remarked that what they needed was a German rail car which had been used to transport Jews to the camps to use as a holding place for all the paper clips. The Schroeders traveled to Germany and eventually located such a rail car and had it shipped to the US into the port of Baltimore. Ironically it began the slow journey from Baltimore to Whitwell on September 11, 2001.

The entire town came together to build a memorial around the German rail car – some planted, some made decorative sculpture, others organized. It was a community effort. The decision was made to store 11 million paper clips in the rail car, representing 6 million Jews and 5 million other victims of the Holocaust. Today the memorial is a focal point of the community. It is widely visited by groups from near and far away. The guides are students, who have learned about the atrocities of WW II and have vowed to work toward a greater tolerance of all peoples.

At the end of the film, one of the students poses this question to the principal, “When you touch these paper clips, can you feel the souls of all those who died?” Another student remarks, “I don’t think I will ever look at a paper clip the same way again.”

1 Comments:

Blogger Dsquared said...

sounds like a great movie. your description was really super!

10:46 PM  

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