Nestled deep within the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Tennessee is the hamlet of Whitwell. One hundred years ago it was a boom town for coal miners and bootleggers. Today it is a sleepy Southern town of maybe 2,000 people—mostly Caucasian and Protestant–and one of the most impoverished areas in the state. It is also home to one of the world’s most poignant memorials to the Holocaust victims of Nazi Germany: the Children’s Holocaust Memorial.
In 1998 Linda Hooper set up a project in hopes of teaching the students of Whitwell Middle School the meaning of tolerance and diversity due to the areas isolation and proximity to the home of the Ku Klux Klan. Working with educators Sandra Roberts and David Smith, they explained the Holocaust of World War II and its murder of six million Jews by the Nazis in Europe along with the persecution and annihilation of handicapped persons, homosexuals, Romani’s, and other ethnic and religious groups. One question by a student changed everything.
“What does six million look like?”
That inspired the educators to show the children the impact of the Holocaust, and how the feelings that connect us are greater than those that divide us. To help the students grasp the enormity of the Holocaust they teachers and students choose to gather paper clips which many Norwegians wore on their lapels as a silent protest to Nazi occupation during World War II. They looked to gather six million paper clips to represent each person killed by the Nazi government of Adolf Hitler. A website was created, and students sent letters to friends, celebrities and dignitaries hoping to collect a sizable number of paper clips.
The first paper clip came from a 94 year old Holocaust survivor, Lena Gliprtter,from Washington, D.C who was a friend of journalists Peter and Dagmar Schroeder. Students continued to correspond with other Holocaust survivors, who would donate a paper clip on behalf of family members, friends or other victims of the Holocaust.
Peter and Dagmar Schroeder brought the project the small school and community international attention. The couple had been born in Germany during World War II and they covered the White House for German newspapers. Eventually they wrote a book Das Büroklammer-Projekt (The Paper Clip Project), to promote the endeavor in Germany. The same year, Dita Smith wrote about the venture for the Washington Post.
Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have sent in paper clips, as have superstars Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.
The Children’s Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell Middle School was officially dedicated Nov. 9, 2001, complete with a railcar procured from Germany that was used to transport Jewish detainees to Nazi death camps. Today, the railcar stands as a testament to the tragedy-and it is filled with more than 30 million paper clips collected from around the globe. The students, staff and community of Whitwell have transformed the German railcar into a symbol of renewed life honoring the lives of those taken by the Nazis.
The memorial has also received more than 30,000 letters, documents, books and artifacts, catalogued by students and on display at the memorial. Paper clips are encased at each end of the railcar, with letters and mementos displayed among the paper clips.
In 2004, an award-winning documentary film about the project, “Paper Clips,” was released by Miramax Films. Preview the film here.
“The paper clips project has been an affirmation of my beliefs that education is essential to change,” Linda Hooper, has said. “Everyone must study the past so that we do not forget or repeat our mistakes.”