Everyone knows that a paper clip holds pieces of paper together.
If you visit the Children’s Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell Middle School in southeast Tennessee, your perception of paper clips will change entirely.
Whitwell, population 1,600, is 24 miles northwest of Chattanooga. The middle school has 400 students in grades 5 to 8, with very little diversity.
In 1998, eighth-graders started studying the Holocaust after school to learn about different cultures and intolerance.
To help grasp the magnitude of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust — historians estimate 6 million — students asked if they could collect something. Principal Linda Hooper liked the idea — if the students could find something meaningful to collect.
Through research, students learned that paper clips were invented by Norwegians, who wore them to protest Nazism during World War II.
And so a project that would unite the community and touch outsiders; a project that would become the subject of a documentary film; a project that would “Change the World One Class at a Time,” as the school touts, was begun.
Clips come pouring in
Students started bringing in paper clips. They wrote to people and asked them to send a paper clip, along with their reasons for sending it.
A synagogue in Atlanta, Ga., delivered several boxes of paper clips. Former President Clinton, actors Tom Hanks and Tom Bosley, and director Steven Spielberg all sent paper clips and letters commending the students’ efforts.
Hooper’s personal favorite is an index card that came with one paper clip attached, from a young woman in Texas. The card read, “I’m sending you this to ask for forgiveness for my grandfather, who was a bigot who hated everyone.”
The project continued to grow. By May 2001 the paper clips totaled more than 16 million. That month, four Holocaust survivors from New York visited the school, sharing emotional firsthand accounts of Nazi concentration camps.
To date, the school has collected 30 million paper clips “and counting,” Hooper said. In addition, the school library contains more than 30,000 letters, documents and artifacts, all counted and catalogued by students.
Creating the monument
It’s not the sheer number of paper clips that make the Children’s Holocaust Memorial a stirring testament. It’s the special way in which the children and community, with the help of two news correspondents, chose to display them.
Students placed 11 million paper clips — representing the number of Jews, handicapped, homosexuals and others killed in the Holocaust — inside a German transport car.
Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, White House correspondents for German newspapers, purchased the car from a railroad museum in Germany and arranged for its transport to the United States. The rail car, built in 1917, actually transported victims to concentration, labor and death camps.
In a small park around the rail car, the school erected 18 copper butterfly sculptures representing the Christian symbol of renewal and Hebrew symbol for life.
The memorial was dedicated Nov. 9, 2001.
An additional 11 million paper clips are in a monument honoring the children of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp located in what is now the Czech Republic.
The freestanding monument, built after the rail car was dedicated, is an iron pyramid with a stainless-steel paper clip on the front and two child figures on top.
The children of the Terezin camp wrote stories and poems, some of which were later published in a collection called I Never Saw Another Butterfly.
Student-led tours start the first Friday after Labor Day and continue each Friday when school is in session. The one-hour tours, given by seventh- or eighth-grade students, begin at 10:40 a.m.
Hooper asks that visitors arrange for guided tours in advance by sending an e-mail to her at
. Type the word VISIT on the subject line. The Holocaust information line is (423) 658-5631. Please do not call the school office.
“We love for people to come,” Hooper said. “So many people need a place of hope. But we are first and foremost a school.”
Self-guided tours of the rail car are available 24 hours a day year-round. Drop by the police department at Whitwell City Hall (13671 Highway 28). There, you can pick up a tape recorder, which will narrate a tour of the monument.
The library display of artifacts and documents is viewable only during the student-led guided tours.
Whitwell Middle School is located 1130 Main St., 12 miles north of Interstate 24, off exit 155. There is plenty of room for motorhome parking.
The memorial is a free attraction. The school accepts donations to support a scholarship fund and for the memorial's upkeep.
The school was built in 1929. Construction of a new school is expected to be completed in 2008, and a Holocaust Memorial visitors center is included in the plans, Hooper said.
The impact of the paper clip project is ongoing and far-reaching. About four years ago the school shipped 6 million paper clips to a school in New York that was starting its own Holocaust study, Hooper said.
Paper Clips, a feature-length documentary, was released in 2004 in association with Miramax Films and Ergo entertainment. The film, as well as several books, continue to draw attention to the school and monument, but more importantly, to Holocaust victims and survivors.
Old Buttonwillow Church Civil War Dinner Theater is located at 1060 Main St., only one-half block from Whitwell Middle School.
This church is a converted dinner theater that presents The Great Civil War Exposition Theater’s "Granddaddy's Watch" every Friday and Saturday night. It’s a play about two brothers, one Union, one Confederate, who meet during the Civil War.
The theater is available for groups of 20 or more at any time. The owners converted the church to a replica of an1800s farmhouse. Tours of the house are offered by appointment.
For reservations and info, call (423) 658-7478. More info: www.whitwellmiddleschool.org