Linking the past to today

26th January 2007 at 00:00
A paper clip might not be an obvious way to honour a person's life, but the simple device is helping children remember and pay respect to those killed by the Nazis. Jan Trebilcock reports

When the children of Whitwell Middle School, in a small Tennessee town, began to explore diversity and tolerance through an after-school project on the Holocaust, they came up with a simple idea. It changed the pupils, their teachers, their community - and reached people around the world.

Paper Clips is a moving and inspiring documentary about how the pupils responded to what they learnt, and about their promise to honour those who lost their lives by collecting one paper clip for each individual exterminated by the Nazis.

Whitwell, Tennessee, has a population of 1,600. It was once a thriving coal mining town, but an accident shut down the industry more than 30 years ago.

"It is known as a 'depressed community'," says Linda Hooper, who is principal of the school. "We are poor, but we are not depressed. We are pretty much homogeneous, white and Christian.

"We have just one Hispanic and two African American children - no Jews, no Catholics, no Asians - which is why it is so important to help the pupils understand about the diversity of the world outside Whitwell."

The project started in 1998 when a pupil asked: "What is six million? I've never seen that before." After that the children started researching for something meaningful to collect. They discovered that citizens of Norway, where paper clips were invented, had worn them on their lapels as a sign of patriotism and resistance against the Nazis.

By the end of 1999, despite the efforts of pupils and their community, the project slowed down. They had collected many paper clips, but estimated it would take another 10 years to collect six million. But an article in The Washington Post about the project changed everything. News of the project spread, film-makers became interested, a survivor group from New York made a visit, and thousands of letters arrived from all over the world.

Almost 30 million paper clips were received and the donors included Bill Clinton, George Bush, Bill Cosby and Tom Hanks.

In 2001, the children completed their Holocaust memorial - a cattle truck filled with 11 million paper clips - which stands permanently in the school yard.

"The project is continuing," says Linda. "It's become part of the regular curriculum. The children give tours of the memorial to our many visitors.

The paper clips are still coming, and soon we are going to have a new building to house all our resources."

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