A Measure Of Hope: The Whitwell, Tenn., Holocaust Project Has Spread
Beyond the Classroom
By Dita Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 7, 2001; Page C01
WHITWELL, Tenn. -- It 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, that would become an
Yet it is here that a group of eighth-graders and their teachers
decided to honor each of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust by
collecting 6 million paper clips and turning them into a sculpture.
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 has 425 students, including six blacks, one Hispanic,
Asians, zero Catholics, zero Jews.
"During coal-mining days, we were a mixed community,"
explains the town's unofficial historian, Eulene Hewett Harris. "Now
there are only a handful of black families left."
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. Some of the cottages built by
the mining companies still stand, their paint now chipped and their
cluttered porches sagging. Trailers have replaced the houses that
collapsed from age and neglect during lean economic times.
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. Almost eight decades later, most people in this Sequatchie
River Valley hold firmly to those beliefs under the watchful eyes of their
"Look, we're not that far away from the Ku Klux Klan,"
founded only 100 miles west, in Pulaski, Tenn., says Hewett Harris.
"I mean, in the 1950s they were still active here."
Such is the setting for a memorial not only to remember Holocaust
victims but, above all, to sound a warning on what intolerance can wreak.
The Whitwell students and teachers had no idea how many lives they were about to touch.
Math and History
The Holocaust project had its genesis in the summer of 1998 when
Whitwell Middle's 31-year-old deputy principal and football coach, David
Smith, attended a teacher training course in nearby Chattanooga. A seminar
on the Holocaust as a teaching tool for tolerance intrigued him because
the Holocaust had never been part of the middle school's curriculum and
was mentioned only tangentially in the local high school.
He came back and proposed an after-school course that would be
Principal Hooper, 59, loved the idea. "We just have to give our
children a broader view of the world," she says. "We have to
crack the shell of their white cocoon, to enable them to survive in the
world out there."
She was nervous about how parents would react, and held a
meeting. But when she asked the assembled adults if they knew anything
about the Holocaust, only a few hands went up, hesitatingly. Hooper,
who has lived in Whitwell most of her life and had taught some of the
parents in elementary school, explained the basics.
Just one parent expressed misgivings: Should young teenagers be shown
terrifying photos of naked, emaciated prisoners? Hooper admitted she
wasn't sure. "Well," the father asked, "would you let your
son take the class?"
Yes, she replied, and the father was on board.
There wasn't a question about who would teach it: Sandra Roberts, 30,
the English and social sciences teacher, always a captivating
In October 1998, Roberts and Smith held the first session. Fifteen
students and almost as many parents showed up. Roberts began by reading
aloud -- history books, "The Diary of Anne Frank," Elie Wiesel's
"Night" --mostly because many of the students did not have the
money to buy the books; 52
percent of Whitwell's students qualify for free lunch.
What gripped the eighth-graders most as the course progressed, was the
sheer number of dead. Six million. The Nazis killed 6 million Jews. Can
anyone really imagine 6 million of anything? They did calculations: If
6 million adults and children were to lie head to toe, the line would
stretch from Washington to San Francisco and back.
One day, Roberts was explaining to the class that there were some good
people in 1940s Europe who stood up for the Jews. After the Nazis invaded
Norway, many courageous Norwegians expressed solidarity with their Jewish
fellow citizens by pinning ordinary paper clips to their lapels.
One girl -- nobody remembers who it was -- said: Let's collect 6
million paper clips and turn them into a sculpture to remember the
The idea caught on, and the students began bringing in paper clips,
from home, from aunts and uncles and friends. Smith, as the school's computer expert, set up a Web page asking for donations of
clips, one or two, or however many people wanted to
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.
It occurred to the teachers that collecting 6 million paper clips at
that rate would take a lifetime.
Help From Afar
Unexpected help came in late 1999 when two German journalists living in
Washington, DC, stumbled across the Whitwell website. Peter Schroeder,
59, and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, 58, had been doing research at the US
Holocaust Memorial Museum, tracing concentration camp survivors to interview.
Schroeder-Hildebrand was author of "I'm Dying of
Hunger," a book abouta camp survivor who devised imaginary dinners to
survive; Peter had written "The Good Fortune of Lena Lieba Gitter,"
about a Viennese Jew who escaped the Nazis and devoted her life to civil
The Whitwell website came up during a routine search under "Holocaust."
The idea of American children in a conservative Southern town collecting
paper clips intrigued the couple. 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."
The Schroeders were so touched they wrote a paperback
about Whitwell. "The Paper Clip Project,"
which has not been translated into English, was
published in September 2000, in time for Germany's largest book fair in
The blizzard of clips became an avalanche.
Whitwell eighth-graders came to Washington in March last year to visit
the Holocaust Museum. They went home carrying 24,000 more paper clips
collected by the Schroeders. Airport security had trouble understanding
why a bunch of teenagers and their teachers were transporting boxes and
boxes of paper clips to Tennessee.
Linked to the Past
Just a year later, the Holocaust project has permeated the school. The
after-school group is the most favored extracurricular activity --
students must compete in an essay contest for its 20 to 25 places. 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.
The group's activities have long spilled over from Robert's classroom.
Across the hall, the students have created a concentration-camp simulation
with paper cutouts of themselves pasted on the wall. Chicken wire stretches
across the wall to represent electrified fences. Wire mesh is hung with
shoes to represent the millions of shoes the victims left behind when they
were marched to death chambers.
And every year now they reenact the "walk" to
give students at least an inkling of what people must have felt when
jackbooted Nazi guards marched them off to camps. The students are
blindfolded, tied together by the wrists, roughly ordered onto a truck and
driven to the woods. "I was truly scared," recalls Monica
Hammers, a participant in last year's walk. "It made me think, and it
made me realize that I have to put myself into other people's shoes."
Meanwhile, the counting goes on. It is daunting. On a late winter day,
as the picturesque valley floor shows the first shimmer of soft green, 22
students gather for their Wednesday meeting. All wear the group's polo
shirt, emblazoned: "Changing the World, One Clip at a Time." The
neat white shirts conform to the school's dress
code: solid-colored shirts devoid of large logos,
solid-colored pants, knee-length shorts or skirts, worn with
a belt. Many of the girls have attached colored paper clips to their
These are no loose-mannered kids -- they reply
"yes, ma'am" and "yes, sir."
Even lunch in the cafeteria is disciplined and relatively quiet. Yet,
there is an obvious and warm bond between students and
The group's first item of business is opening the mail
that has accumulated during the past three days.
That takes half of the two-to three-hour meeting. A
large package has arrived from Germany, two smaller
ones from Austria and more than a dozen letters. Laura
Jefferies is in charge of the ledger and keeps a
neat record of each sender's address, phone number
and e-mail address. One group of students responds to the e-mails
sent via their website, www.Marionschools.org.
Roberts opens the packages, which have been examined in the principal's
office to make sure they contain nothing dangerous.
"We've had a few negative letters from
Holocaust deniers, but we have never received a threat,"
says the silver-haired Hooper. "But even if we did, we would go
on. We cannot live in fear; that would defeat the entire
The large package, from a German school, contains about 40 letters,
with paper clips pasted onto each
page. Roberts sighs. "This is a huge amount
of work," she says. "There
are days when I wished we could just stop it. But
it has gotten way beyond us. It's no longer about us. There
is no way we could stop this
When the students fall behind, it's Roberts who spends hours sorting
The students crowd around Robert's desk and receive a letter at a time.
They carefully empty all paper clips onto little piles. Drew Shadrick,
a strapping tackle on the football
team, is the chief counter and stands over a
three-foot-high white plastic barrel, about the size of an oil drum.
He counts each clip, drops it into the barrel,
keeping track on a legal pad.
Two other barrels, which once contained Coca-Cola syrup and were
donated by the
corporation, are filled to the rim and sealed with transparent plastic.
"It takes five strong guys to move one of those
barrels," says Roberts.
Against the wall this day are stacks and stacks of boxes. In early
February, an Atlanta synagogue had promised 1 million paper
clips, and sure enough, a week
later a pickup truck delivered 84 boxes bought from an office
supply store. Half are still unopened.
All sorts of clips arrive -- silver-tone, bronze-tone, plastic-coated
in all colors, small ones, large ones, round ones,
triangular clips and artistic ones fashioned from
Then there are the designs made of paper clips, neatly pasted onto
letter paper. If removing the paper
clips would destroy the design, the students count
the clips, then replace them in the barrel with an equal number purchased
by the group. The art is left intact.
Occasionally a check for a few dollars arrives. The money goes toward
buying supplies. Both Roberts and Smith won teacher awards
last year, 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. By now, 5,000 to 8,000 letters
fill 14 neat binders.
The letters are from 19 countries and 45 states, and include dozens of
rainbow pictures, and flowers, peace doves and swastikas
crossed out with big red bars
-- in the shape of paper clips. There are poems, personal stories.
"Today," one letter reads, "I am sending 71 paper clips
to commemorate the 71 Jews who were deported from
One man sent five paper clips to commemorate his mother and four
siblings murdered by the Nazis in Lithuania in
"For my handicapped brother," says another letter. "I'm
so glad he didn't live then;
the Nazis would have killed him."
"For my grandmother," says another. "I'm so grateful she
survived the camp."
"For my son, that he may live in peace," wrote a woman from
Last year, a letter containing eight paper clips came from President
Clinton. Another arrived from Vice President Gore, a native
of Tennessee, thanking the
students for their "tireless efforts to preserve and promote
human rights," but including no clips.
Every month, Smith writes dozens of celebrities, politicians and sports
teams, requesting paper clips. He gets many refusals, form
letters indicating that the addressee never saw the
request. But clips came in from Tom
Bosley (of TV's "Happy Days" fame), Henry Winkler (the Fonz),
Tom Hanks, Elie Wiesel, Madeleine Albright. Among
the football teams that contributed are the
Tennessee Titans, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Indianapolis
Colts and the Dallas Cowboys.
So many clips in memory of specific Holocaust victims have come in that
one thing has become clear: Melting them into a statue
would be inconceivable. Each paper clip should
represent one victim, the students believe,
and so a new idea has been hatched.
They want to get an authentic German railroad car from the 1940s, one
that may have actually transported victims to camps. The
car would be turned into a museum that would house
all the paper clips, as well as display all the
Dagmar and Peter Schroeder plan to travel to Germany next week to find
a suitable railroad car and have it
transported to Whitwell.
They are determined to find such a car and the necessary funding. Like
counting the clips, the task is daunting.
Whatever happens, for generations of Whitwell eighth- graders, a paper
clip will never again be just a paper clip, but instead
carry a message of patience,
perseverance, empathy and tolerance.
Roberts, asked what she thought she had accomplished with the project
so far, said: "Nobody put it
better than Laurie Lynn [a student in last year's
class]. She said, 'Now, when I see someone, I think before
I speak, I think before I act,
and I think before I judge.' "And Roberts adds: "That's all I
could ever hope to achieve as a teacher."
She gives this week's assignment: "Tomorrow, I want you all to go
and sit next to a person at
lunch whom you never talk with, a person that nobody
wants to sit with at lunch. I want you to stop one of those
people in the hall and say:
'Hi! What'd you do last night?' Now, don't make it obvious
--they may know that it's just an assignment. That would hurt."
Drew pipes up: "Well, I've already tried that, but that kid --
that, you know, he just sits
there and stares, what can I do?"
"Keep at it -- don't give up," says Roberts.
Latest count: 2,108,622 paper clips. 3,891,378 to go.
Paper clips are gratefully accepted by: Whitwell Middle School, Holocaust
Project, 1130 Main St., Whitwell, TN 37397
(c) 2001 The Washington Post Company