Whitwell, TN is a most unlikely place to build a Holocaust memorial, much less one that would get the attention of the president, that would become the subject of a book, become an award winning documentary and become an international cause.
Yet here is one of those moments where the goodness of the human soul shines through the prejudice and meanness that that litters our world and, for a brief moment, blinds us with hope. A group of eighth-graders and their teachers studying history came upon the topic of the holocaust. One child offered the innocent admission that she couldn’t imagine ‘six million.’ She had never seen a million of anything – much less six.
Joseph Stalin once fashioned a quote from the horror of his life that has often made me stop and think. He said, “A single death is a tragedy… a million deaths is a statistic.” In Whitwell, TN a group of eighth graders wanted to understand the real tragedy that had been eclipsed by statistics. So, while they read the diary of Anne Frank, they decided to gather together six million of something to help make the number real. Through Internet studies, the students discovered that Johan Vaaler, a Norwegian, designed the paperclip, and the Norwegians wore them on their lapels during World War II as a silent protest against Nazi occupation.
This is remarkable because, for one thing, Whitwell, a town of 1,600 tucked away in a Tennessee Valley just west of the Smokeys, has no Jews.
In fact, Whitwell does not offer much opportunity to practice racial or religious tolerance of any kind. “Our community is white, Christian and very fundamentalist,” says Linda Hooper, principal of the middle school, which at the time had 425 students enrolled, including six blacks, one Hispanic, zero Asians, zero Catholics and zero Jews.
Whitwell is a town of two traffic lights, 10 churches and a collection of fast-food joints sprinkled along the main drag. It was a thriving coal town until 1962, when the last mine closed.
Only 40 miles up the road is Dayton, where the red-brick Rhea County Courthouse made history during the 1925 Scopes trial, the “monkey trial,” in which teacher John T. Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law that made it unlawful “to teach any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation” and to teach Darwinian evolutionary theory instead
The Ku Klux Klan was founded only 100 miles west, in Pulaski, Tenn.
When they undertook the project they had no idea how many lives had felt hope die during the holocaust. By the time they would finish they would know the recipe for how to help hope be born in the lives of many more than six million people.
After more than a little concern and consternation from parents and townsfolk got passed their own hesitation, it was announced the class would try to collect 6 million paper clips. The school’s computer expert set up a Web page asking for donations of clips, one or two, or however many people wanted to send. A few weeks later, the first letter arrived. One Lisa Sparks from Tyler, Tex., sent a handful. Then a letter landed from Colorado. . . .
By the end of the school year, the group had assembled 100,000 clips. They began to think it would take a long time. But unexpected help came later that year when two German journalists living in Washington, DC, stumbled across the Whitwell website. Peter Schroeder, 59, and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, 58, wrote a book called, “I’m Dying of Hunger,” a book about a camp survivor who devised imaginary dinners to survive. They called the school, interviewed teachers and students by telephone, then wrote several articles for the nine newspapers they work for in Germany and Austria.
Whitwell and the Schroeders were hit with a blizzard of paper clips from the two countries. The couple soon had 46,000, filling several large plastic containers. The thing to do, they decided, was to drive them to Whitwell, 12 hours away. They received a hero’s welcome. The entire school showed up.
None of the eighth-graders had ever met anyone from outside the United States, let alone anyone from Germany, the country of the Holocaust perpetrators. At the end of the four-day visit, the students told their principal, “They are really quite normal.”
In a short time, the blizzard of clips became an avalanche. Whitwell eighth-graders travelled to Washington to visit the Holocaust Museum. They went home carrying 24,000 more paper clips. Airport security had trouble understanding why a bunch of teenagers and their teachers were transporting boxes and boxes of paper clips to Tennessee.
A year later, the Holocaust project permeated the school. The after-school group is the favorite extracurricular activity – so much so, students had to compete in an essay contest for the 20 to 25 spots. They’ve become used to being interviewed by local television and national radio. Foreign countries are no longer mysterious, with hundreds of letters bearing witness to them.
An Atlanta synagogue donated 1 million paper clips. Occasionally a check for a few dollars arrives. The money goes toward buying supplies to help count and catalogue the paperclips. Both teachers involved won awards and their $3,000 in prize money also went toward supplies, and helping students pay for what has become an annual trip to Washington and the Holocaust Museum.
The students file all letters, all scraps of paper, even the stamps, in large white ring binders. When we visited, there were over 150 binders filled with letters. There were binders from survivors, descendents, celebrities, public officials – even ‘hate mail’ from those who denied the holocaust ever happened.
The project was covered on TV shoes like 20-20 and 60 minutes. The project discovered that more than 11 million people perished in the holocaust – 5 million others besides Jews including political dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, homosexuals and other minorities.
I read about this project shortly after it first began. Whitwell was less than two hours away from where I lived in Alpharetta, GA. I have preached on it several times and I never manage to avoid tears. And every time it comes to mind I can never avoid been flooded with inspiration, awe and hope.
A paper clip has new meaning to me now. Its much more than something that holds paper together. It holds more important things together.