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Six Million Paper Clips
The Making of a Children's Holocaust Memorial
By Peter W. Schroeder, Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand
Kar-Ben PublishingCopyright © 2004 Peter W. Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand
All rights reserved.
Whitwell, Tennessee, is a small town nestled in the Sequatchie Valley, over the mountains from Chattanooga. The middle school is located on Main Street across from a small clapboard-style church. It is a town where everyone knows everyone. Only 1,600 people live in Whitwell.
"We take care of each other," Whitwell Middle School principal Linda Hooper says proudly. "But we are all alike: white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. You can count the minority families on one hand. There are no foreigners in Whitwell—and no Catholics, no Muslims, no Jews."
Mrs. Hooper knows that growing up in a small community where everyone is alike can be a drawback. "One day, our kids will leave the sheltered life in Whitwell. They will work in a big town over the mountains, or go on vacation to visit relatives or friends. And they will encounter people who are not 'like us.' How will they handle intolerance or rejection?"
In the spring of 1998, one parent, who had been a student of Mrs. Hooper's 25 years earlier, suggested that it was time to teach diversity. But how?
Some months later, David Smith, the school's vice principal and coach of the Whitwell Tigers' football team, attended a teachers' conference in Chattanooga. He came back to Whitwell both disturbed and excited.
"Mrs. Hooper," he asked his boss, "what do you know about the Holocaust?"
"You mean the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis?" she replied. "Why do you ask?"
"Because now I know how we can teach diversity," he exclaimed. "We can tell the kids what happened to the Jewish people. We can demonstrate what intolerance is and what it can lead to."
Linda Hooper didn't need any convincing. She started planning what nobody had done at Whitwell Middle School before: to teach a special class about the Holocaust and the roots of intolerance.
In the fall, she summoned the parents of all eighth graders. "The Holocaust class will be a voluntary, after-school project," she explained. "And we will ask all parents to attend the first sessions, because we will talk about disturbing and horrific things."
Nobody said a word. Some parents shuffled uncomfortably on the seats of the little chairs. In this silence, Mrs. Hooper said, "If anyone thinks we shouldn't go ahead, please speak up now."
One father raised his hand. "Linda, would you want your own children to attend the Holocaust class?" he asked.
"I would," she replied. "My kids didn't learn about the Holocaust at school, so I had to teach them at home."
"Then we're all on board," the father said. All the other parents nodded their heads in agreement.
There was no question who should teach the class. Sandra Roberts, the popular eighth-grade language arts teacher, was the natural choice. Sandra had been one of Mrs. Hooper's students.
Sandra herself didn't know much about the Holocaust. For two weeks, she read every related book she could lay her hands on, and she researched the subject on the Internet. "I basically knew what had happened," she would confess much later, "but I didn't realize the enormity of the systematic mass murder of the Jewish people."
At the first class, Sandra introduced the subject of the Holocaust to the 16 students who had enrolled in the class. "Some 70 years ago, the leader of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler, became head of the German government. He hated Jews and blamed them for all the ills of the German society. He ordered that they be punished. The punishment began with laws that restricted the rights of Jews. Later the Jews were herded into ghettos, transported to concentration camps, and forced to work as slave laborers. In the end, the punishment, over and over again, was death."
The students in the Holocaust class looked at their teacher in disbelief. "You are joking," one girl said, "and you shouldn't joke about murder."
In the following weeks, the students discovered that the teacher wasn't joking. They all read The Diary of Anne Frank, the journal of a teenage girl who had hidden with her family for over two years in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Then they read I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing up in the Holocaust by Livia Bitton-Jackson, thestory of 13-year-old Ellie Friedman, who was forced from her home, along with her family, to the concentration camp of Auschwitz.
Sandra Roberts was concerned how her pupils would react when she told them that the Nazis planned to wipe out the Jewish race completely. "They didn't just murder a few Jews here and there," she told her students. "The Nazis murdered six million Jews. And between one and two million of these victims were children. Children like you."
There was an eerie silence in the classroom. The students looked at their teacher without any emotion. "Didn't they hear what I told them?" she asked herself. She repeated, "The Nazis murdered six million Jews."
Finally, one girl raised her hand. "This sounds awful, really awful, Ms. Roberts, but what on earth is six million?"
"Yeah, how much is it?" echoed a classmate. "I can't imagine a number as large as six million."
"I can't either," Sandra admitted. "Any suggestions?"
"We could collect six million of something and pile it up," one boy proposed.
"Good idea," said someone else. "But what should we collect?" Everyone had a different idea. Buttons and pennies were suggested. But none seemed realistic.
"What about collecting paper clips?" one student asked. "That shouldn't be too difficult."
"Who gave you that idea?" Sandra asked.
"The Internet, Ms. Roberts," the student answered. "I read on my mom's computer that the paper clip played a big role in the Holocaust. The Nazis invaded the country of Norway, and they began to round up Jews to ship them to concentration camps. The non-Jewish Norwegians didn't like it a bit. And so they protested ... by wearing paper clips."
Sandra Roberts didn't know what to make of the story. But she had been teaching long enough to know that a teacher often can learn from a student.
"Go on," she said. "That can't be the end of the story."
The student continued. "The Nazis forced Jews to wear yellow stars on their clothing. So the Norwegians began to wear paper clips on their lapels as a protest."
Sandra Roberts did her own research. Not only was the story true, but a Norwegian man, Johan Vaaler, had invented the paper clip in 1899.
So the Holocaust class of the Whitwell Middle School began to collect paper clips.
At that moment, nobody could imagine that life would never be the same at Whitwell Middle School ... or in the little town in the Sequatchie Valley.CHAPTER 2
Collecting paper clips
The students went through every drawer at home, and they asked relatives and neighbors to do the same. After a few weeks, they had brought more than 1,000 paper clips to school.
They realized that collecting six million was not going to be so easy. So they began writing letters to sports heroes, politicians, film stars, and industry leaders asking for help. Most wrote back and told the students how impressed they were to learn about their project. And they sent paper clips.
While most of the paper clips came from "regular folks," packages also came in from famous people such as former president Bill Clinton, actor Tom Hanks, director Steven Spielberg, and football players from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys.
With the paper clips came letters, such as one from Hollywood director Henry Winkler whose father was a Holocaust survivor. The star of the TV series Happy Days told the students that when his father fled the Nazis and immigrated to the United States, he had to leave everything behind. But he was determined to keep a very old pocket watch he had received as a Bar Mitzvah* gift from his father. He covered it with melted chocolate and smuggled it out in an old box. Winkler received the watch when he became a Bar Mitzvah and has since passed it on to his son.
The students organized a system to deal with the deluge of mail. Some logged in the letters and put them into binders, while others counted and stored the paper clips. Soon the letters filled nine scrapbooks, and the clips began overflowing their containers.
The students were excited about the mail, but they soon realized that they probably would never reach their goal.
Coach David Smith, who had joined the Holocaust group as an adviser, came up with an idea. He proposed designing a website to explain the Paper Clip Project and ask for contributions. A few days later, the website was up and running. "Please help us," it said. "We are collecting paper clips. Each one will represent a victim of the Holocaust. As soon as we have six million, we will make a monument."
But after some time, the excitement died down, and at the end of the year, the Holocaust group had received only 160,000 paper clips. The students did the math and found that at this rate, it would take 37.5 years to reach their goal.
"We will never understand what six million victims really means," one student said sadly. The teachers tried to convince the students not to give up hope.
Help for the project was already on the way. But nobody in Whitwell knew it.CHAPTER 3
The link to Germany
In the fall of 1999, Dagmar and Peter Schroeder, White House correspondents for a group of German newspapers, came across the project's website at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The very same day, they had lunch with their dear friend, 92-year-old Lena Lieba Gitter, who had fled to the United States from her native Austria after the Nazis had taken over that country.
Amazingly, Lena met the Schroeders at the door of her Washington home with a printout of the Whitwell website. And as she served them lunch, she urged them, "Do something about this! I know you will."
So they did. They called the school and talked to the teachers and some students. They wrote articles for nine German newspapers that included a simple request. "If you think this project is worthwhile, please send some paper clips. And enclose a letter telling the students why you are participating."
In the first three weeks after the articles appeared, the students received 2,000 letters and counted more than 46,000 paper clips. Letters came from children as young as six. The oldest writer was ninety-eight.
Some former German soldiers apologized for "not being heroes" during the war. Survivors wrote and told their stories. The Whitwell students heard from other school classes that had started their own paper clip collections. Over and over people wrote, "We want to do our part, so that history will not be repeated."
The paper clips came in all colors, shapes, and sizes, as different as humans are ... and as alike. Many letters came with poems, drawings, and other artwork.
The Schroeders received so many deeply touching letters that they decided to write a book about the German response. Das Büroklammer-Projekt (The Paper Clip Project) was published in Germany in the fall of 2000.
When Washington Post editor Dita Smith read the book, she decided she needed to know more. She traveled to Whitwell, and on April 7, 2001, which coincided with Passover, she published an article in the Washington Post entitled "A Measure of Hope." Other newspapers and TV and radio stations all over the country picked up the story and told their readers, viewers, and listeners what the kids in Whitwell were up to.
"If you want to help—send paper clips," they urged.CHAPTER 4
Planning the memorial
And people did! The post office in Whitwell received so many letters and packages every day that the letter carrier couldn't fit them all in his car. So the postmaster began calling Linda Hooper to send someone to pick up the mail. On some days, Vice Principal Smith had to make several trips to the post office in his pickup truck.
At the school, there were not enough hands to count all the paper clips. So parents came to school and counted. Soon others joined them. On some days, there were more grown-ups in the school than students.
In Washington, the Schroeders were also receiving mail and paper clips. They loaded them in their car and drove down to Whitwell. The students greeted them excitedly. "You will not believe this! We have more than five million paper clips! One million more to go!"
"What should we do if we get more than six million?" one student asked.
"Keep on collecting and counting," the Schroeders told them. "The Nazis didn't murder only Jews. They murdered others as well."
Dagmar told the students about a lady she had met while studying at the University of Cologne in Germany. She was 4 feet 1 ½ inches tall. Had she been only 4 foot 1 inch, she would have been killed, because the Nazis were murdering very short people. They called them Unwertes Leben (unworthy life).
The students learned that the Nazis also killed political opponents, Socialists, Communists, handicapped people, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and others—everyone who didn't believe in or didn't fit into their ideology of a superior race. There were actually 11 million victims.
"We will not stop," the class agreed. "We will collect 11 million paper clips!"
The paper clips kept coming and coming. Soon the school looked like a warehouse. There were packages and boxes everywhere—in classrooms, in the cafeteria, in the library, in the broom closet, in the principal's office, and under the floor of the gymnasium. They were becoming a fire hazard. The time had come to decide what to do with all the paper clips. The time had come to create a Holocaust memorial at Whitwell Middle School.
One evening, Linda Hooper, her husband Ed, Sandra Roberts, David Smith, his wife Laura, and the Schroeders met for dinner at a local restaurant.
"We started the project because we wanted to have an idea what six million lives means," Sandra said. "It's not decent to leave all the paper clips lying around. We need a memorial for them."
But what should it look like?
Initially, the students had thought that all the paper clips could be melted down at a local ironworks and made into a big metal sculpture ... perhaps a stop sign with a paper clip and a swastika, the symbol of the Nazi movement.
But after learning how hundreds of thousands of Jews were burned in crematories, the students knew that melting down the paper clips was out of the question. "Each paper clip represents a murdered victim of the Holocaust," they told Sandra Roberts. "We can't burn them again!"
The adults tried to come up with another idea. They discussed putting all the paper clips in a big glass jar or attaching them to a giant magnet. Sandra Roberts recalled the visit the students had made to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. She remembered the feelings they had had as they walked through a cattle car the Nazis had used to transport prisoners to concentration camps.
"That's it!" Dagmar and Linda exclaimed at the same time. "We need to find an original German railcar to house the paper clips."
The Schroeders were convinced that finding, securing, and shipping a railcar to Whitwell was a done deal. The rest of the evening was spent thinking about designs for the memorial.
But no one knew how difficult the search for an original German railcar would be.
Excerpted from Six Million Paper Clips by Peter W. Schroeder, Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand. Copyright © 2004 Peter W. Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand. Excerpted by permission of Kar-Ben Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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This book is incredible. If a school has soul and a town supports it's youth, that place is Whitwell, TN. Wow, I get chills when I read this book. I always find some new way to read it each time. This book is amazing! Even, my little sister, who is 8, reads it over and over again!! It just seizes to amaze me the amount of work and effort and soul went into the project and still does.
I recently moved to Whitwell. This is the amazing story of a school and a community working together. Unusual feat for the state of Tennessee and the United States,in this day in age.Amazing how teachers can mold a brain and child like putty if given the opportunity
This is such a heartwarming story!