Student Well-Being

School’s Paper Clip Project Attracts Worldwide Attention

By John Gehring — May 02, 2001 6 min read
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This is a story about two German journalists, one Internet-surfing Holocaust survivor, and the millions of paper clips middle school students in one Tennessee town have received from all over the world.

A small town of 1,600 about 20 miles northwest of Chattanooga, Whitwell is a working-class, mostly white community that has high school football stadiums filled every Friday night and 10 Christian churches just as packed every Sunday morning. The town is not known to have any Jewish residents, and Whitwell seems an unlikely home for a project that has attracted the interest of both Jews and Germans with painful memories of the Holocaust.

For More Information

The Marion County School system posts additional information on the paper clip project. Those interested in sending paper clips to the school should address them to: Whitwell Middle School, Holocaust Project, Attention: Sandra Roberts or David Smith, 1130 Main St., Whitwell, TN 37397.

As part of a series of lessons on the Holocaust, students and teachers at Whitwell Middle School began a drive two years ago to collect 6 million paper clips in recognition of the Jews who died in camps such as Auschwitz during Adolf Hitler’s campaign of genocide. Students came up with the idea after learning that Norwegians wore paper clips on their clothing during World War II as a silent protest against Nazi atrocities.

The students so far have collected about 4 million paper clips—about a third of them from Germany. People there have read about the school’s campaign through a series of articles written by Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, White House correspondents who write for newspapers in Germany and Austria.

The husband-and-wife reporting team learned about the project from Lena Gitter, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, now deceased, who read about the project while surfing the Web. The articles attracted such widespread attention that the two journalists have written a recently published German-language book called The Paper Clip Project.

Ms. Gitter, an associate of the educational pioneer Maria Montessori and the founder of one of the first Montessori schools in Austria, died just a week before the book was introduced last October at the International Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany. She was buried with a paper clip she had worn every day on her lapel.

Teaching Tolerance

Less than 1 percent of Tennessee’s population is Jewish. And at the 400-student Whitwell Middle School, which includes grades 4-8, there are no Jewish students and only six students are black or Hispanic.

“Everyone in this school looks the same,” said Susan Roberts, a teacher at the school who leads an after-school Holocaust- discussion group for students. Last year, she won the East Tennessee Holocaust Teacher of the Year award from the Tennessee Holocaust Commission. Ms. Roberts said she has been inspired by the passion students have shown for learning about a period of genocide Jews refer to as the Shoah.

“One student told me ‘now I think before I speak out, before I act and before I judge,’” Ms. Roberts said. “I can’t change the world as a teacher, but slowly if we reach 25 of these students, and then another 25 students, they are going to change the world.”

Some 100 packages a day arrive at Whitwell. Former President George Bush, former President Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and the actor Tom Hanks have sent paper clips. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose 1993 movie about the Holocaust, “Schindler’s List,” won seven Academy Awards, sent a gold paper clip. Packages have come from every state except North Dakota, South Dakota, and Hawaii.

The paper clips are being stored in large, donated barrels that usually hold soft drink syrup.

Last week alone, the school received 96 e-mails about the project, many from people in Israel.

“I am so touched by your project,” Shirley Bearman wrote from Israel. “I want to commend you from the bottom of my heart for what you are doing and learning. I am a Jew living in Israel where the Holocaust is always on our minds. May you always be good, intelligent, and tolerant as you are now.”

Artwork from all over the world, including a large impressionist-style work that shows interlocking hands holding paper clips, has arrived at the school and now takes up a full wall with a sign that reads “Every Day the World Comes to Whitwell Middle School.”

“I never really expected it to be this big,” said David Smith, the school’s assistant principal. “It just hit a nerve with a lot of people.”

The Long-Term Goal

Of the few negative letters and calls the school has received about the project, school officials said most have criticized its focus on the killing of Jews rather than on other groups that also were targeted by the Nazis. A few opponents have been people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened.

Whitwell students do have a long- term goal of collecting 11 million paper clips to represent what is said to be the total number of people killed in Nazi camps and includes homosexuals, Gypsies, people with disabilities, and other victims.

Mr. Schroeder and Ms. Schroeder-Hildebrand, meanwhile, have located a railroad car, like those used to transport people to Nazi death camps, that they believe may be suitable for holding the paper clips in a museum.

The German journalists have been overwhelmed by letters expressing support for the project and decided to write The Paper Clip Project after receiving a few thousand letters. The first part of the book, intended to be read in schools, explains the students’ efforts. The second part is full of the letters and poems people have sent responding to the project.

“The letters we received were written by members of all sections of German society,” the writers said in an e-mail interview. “Most letters are written by children and families. The others are from repenting members of the Nazi party who participated in the persecution of Jews, from German soldiers and civilians who apologize for ‘not being heroes,’ from survivors of atrocities in ghettos and concentration camps.”

Ruth K. Tanner, the executive director of the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, a Nashville-based organization that works to educate the public about the Holocaust, said the project has received the most attention of any educational program on the subject in her state’s public schools. “What is important is the dedication of the teachers and students to stay with this project over a period of years,” she said. “They deserve to be commended.”

Many teachers interested in delving into questions of morality and ethics, she said, have shaped excellent lesson plans around the Holocaust. “There is something in this subject that lights people up,” Ms. Tanner said.

Lessons Learned

Along with students’ work on the paper clip collection, about 60 Whitwell Middle School 8th graders applied to take part in an after- school reading and discussion group on the Holocaust. Twenty-two students were selected for the class this year, and they read such books as Elie Wiesel’s Night and Livia Bitton-Jackson’s I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing up in the Holocaust.

Students in the after-school class even take part in a “Holocaust walk,” in which the 10 most important personal items they have brought in are taken away, and the students are led around blindfolded and eventually taken to an unknown place.

Before taking the class, 8th grader Drew Shadrick said, he didn’t know about Jewish religious practices such as eating kosher food and observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He also never knew that 1.5 million children died during the Holocaust.

“I’ve learned what bigotry and prejudice can cause, and how one man can cause so much damage,” the 14-year-old said. “If prejudice is not stopped, it could happen again.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as School’s Paper Clip Project Attracts Worldwide Attention


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