Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Paperclip Project

I love documentaries. Over the weekend, I saw one on HBO titled, "The Paperclip Project." It was about a group of students at a middle school in Whitwell, Tennessee, who were studying the Holocaust. The school principal, Linda Hooper, wanted to do something different in her school. She wanted these children who have little or no exposure to other ethnic groups, to really understand the costs hatred and violence bring to the world. It began as a weekly, afterschool, project, attended on a volunteer basis, due to the graphic scenes and descriptions of violence that the children would be exposed to.

As they read books, did research, the same number kept coming up over and over. Six million. Six million Jews executed. One student asked, "What does six million look like?"

The students asked if they could collect something to represent six million, so that they could grasp the vastness of that number. Hooper agreed, but the students were told they'd have to find something that had meaning to the project. They decided to collect paperclips because, they discovered, during the Holocaust, Norwegians wore paperclips on their collars in silent protest against Nazi policies.

By the end of the first year, they'd only collected 10,000 paperclips. But then, two reporters from the DC area, who worked for a German newspaper, caught wind of the project. After their story was published, the flood gates opened. The school began receiving so much mail that the local post office could no longer deliver it. Most of the paperclips they received were from Holocaust survivors, their children, their grandchildren. A large portion of the shipments were accompanied by letters, personal stories of horrid experiences.

I managed not to cry through the beginning of the story, but when a few New Yorkers arrived to speak to the students, all Jewish, all a little afraid of being in Redneck land, and were greeted with hugs and tears and exclamations of, "Don't be scared, we're just folks!" well, that's when I started to lose it. It was a beautiful thing. Then, an older man, not very tall, spoke to the crowd and said, "My name is Joe and I'm a Holocaust survivor," while holding up his arm and showing his tattoo, I fell apart. I watched the remainder of the movie through tears, I'm a big wussy baby, I know.

The school decided to use the paperclips to build a memorial. Through a series of events, they were able to obtain one of the rail cars used by the Nazis to transport people to the concentration camps. The entire town volunteered to help with repairs and landscaping. It now stands in the town of Whitwell, Tennessee, holding eleven million paperclips. Six million for the Jewish people who died in the camps and an additional five million to represent the Romani,homosexuals and other human beings who were forced to suffer and were senselessly murdered.

God Bless Linda Cooper and the teachers, students and townspeople of Whitwell, Tennessee. It's a beautiful thing.