The Children’s Holocaust Memorial, Whitwell TN

The education I received about the Holocaust in my high school years probably filled three minutes, if that.  I imagine my history teachers thought something along the lines of: here are the facts, the numbers, the condensed ideology behind it, and beyond that…coming to grips with what the Holocaust actually was…was simply too enormous to even grasp.  And maybe they thought it was a deep and dark subject for young people, there’s so much history to cover, let’s keep moving.

This summer, I remember that Av told the boys that some “bad people had done something bad” in a place that is important to us, and we were going to send cards.  I privately asked him why he had told the boys that there were “bad people” that did something bad?  I mean, they’re just 6 and 7 — can I just keep them thinking that the world is a nice place where nice things happen and we’re all nice to each other?  They have a lifetime to learn about…the other stuff.  I know, I’m protective.  But why do little kids need to know anything else while they’re little?  They don’t.

Granted, when they get older, it will be appropriate for them to learn the mistakes of the past.  In 1998, a teacher at Whitwell Middle School in Tennessee, — Whitwell having a population of just over 1700 now — started an after-school lesson about the Holocaust as a way of respecting different cultures as well as understanding the effects of intolerance. As the study progressed, the sheer number of Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis overwhelmed the students. Six million was a number that the students could not remotely grasp. The students asked Sandra Roberts and David Smith if they could collect something to help them understand the enormity of this extermination. The teachers told the students to ask permission of principal, Linda M. Hooper. She gave the students permission to begin a collection, IF, they could find something to collect that would have meaning to the project. After some research on the Internet, the students decided to collect paper clips because they discovered that 1) Joseph Valler, a Norwegian Jew is credited as having invented the paper clip and 2) that Norwegians wore them on their lapels as a silent protest against Nazi occupation in WWII.”

The Children's Holocaust Memorial, Whitwell TN
Here, behind the school is an authentic German boxcar built in 1917 which served to transport prisoners to camps during the reign of the Third Reich. How the railcar came here to Tennessee is here.

Much of the rest of the story is pretty well known.  After getting the word out, the students were sent more than six million paperclips from all over the world, and to date, the number is now over 30 million.  They’ve received over 30,000 other pieces — letters, documents — and those are in the Children’s Holocaust Memorial Research Room at the school.

The Children's Holocaust Memorial, Whitwell TN

As the school puts it, “For generations of Whitwell students, a paper clip will never again be just a paper clip. Instead, the paper clip is a reminder of the importance of perseverance, empathy, tolerance, and understanding.”

The Children's Holocaust Memorial, Whitwell TN

The Children's Holocaust Memorial, Whitwell TN
“As you enter this car, we ask that you pause and reflect on the evil of intolerance and hatred”

The Six Million Paperclips book
The 2004 Miramax movie, Paper Clips, is on Amazon Streaming.

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