Mountains of paper clips grow in hills of Tennessee

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WHITWELL, Tenn. — If you build it, they will come.

That might be the motto for the eighth-graders in the middle school of this small Tennessee town — population 1,600 — situated in a valley west of the Smoky Mountains.

These students have done a remarkable thing: As part of a two-year educational project, they've collected more than 20 million paper clips to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. They have more than tripled their original goal of 6 million, one for every Jewish victim of the Nazis.

Every day, the school receives boxes of mail, letters and cards and more paper clips. Clips are counted and transferred into boxes and barrels that are placed in every available space on the school grounds. Every letter is answered and filed in a loose-leaf binder. A record is kept of each sender's address, phone number and e-mail address. Students have responded to e-mails received through the Web site, www.Marionschools.org/holocaust/default.htm

As of June 15, 20,223,112 paper clips were collected, and the Web site urges donors to "keep the letters coming," but not the paper clips, unless they've already been collected.

Social sciences and English teacher Sandra Roberts, whose subject matter includes the Holocaust, often takes letters home on the weekend, reading and answering them with the help of a niece and her 90-year-old grandmother.

Approximately 10,000 letters have reached the school from all over the world. The Boston Red Sox sent a box of paper clips. President Clinton, Al Gore (a native Tennessean) and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also sent them. So did actors Tom Bosley, Henry "the Fonz" Winkler and Tom Hanks; writer Elie Wiesel; and the Tennessee Titans, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Indianapolis Colts and the Dallas Cowboys.

"I feel like Noah and the ark," said principal Linda Hooper during a recent visit to the school. "On Monday, we had nine tubs of mail."

The clips keep pouring in because of all the attention Whitwell has received, including national television coverage and reports in newspapers worldwide, including Germany.

That's because Lena Gitter, a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor from the Washington, D.C., area, who tripped over the Whitwell Web site one day, brought the students' project to the attention of two German journalists, Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, authors of books about the Holocaust. The two made some calls and filed stories for German and Austrian papers.

Then the Schroeders came to Whitwell, which led to their latest book, published in German only, "The Paper Clip Project," now in its second printing.

Gitter sent the first paper clip to Whitwell. She died before the Schroeders' book was published, with a paper clip by her side.

So what do you do with millions of paper clips? The original idea — to melt them down to make a sculpture/memorial — was scrapped. Now, "we'd like to purchase a cattle car from Germany and glass it in at both ends," says Roberts. "People will be able to walk through the cattle car and see the paper clips on both sides."

The school needs at least $12,000 to buy the cattle car and have it shipped to Tennessee.

What makes the students' accomplishment extraordinary is that the people of Whitwell are a homogenous population of white Protestants — Baptists and Methodists, mostly. The town has only a handful of African-American and Roman Catholic families. The middle school's 425 students include just five blacks and one Latino, no Catholics and no Jews, according to the Web site.

"When we started, not a single child had met a Jew or knew anything about Judaism," said the middle school's soft-spoken deputy principal and football coach, David Smith. "So we started with a blank pad. What we found is that the more we teach them, the more they want to learn."

Whitwell is full of trailers and small, old homes with sagging porches. Coal mining used to be big here, but the last mine closed in 1962. Hooper said most of the children in her school will never go to college and will probably move away from Whitwell after finishing high school.

Whitwell's Holocaust project took root in the summer of 1998 when Smith attended a teacher-training course in nearby Chattanooga. There, he heard a Holocaust survivor speak.

"I was looking for something to teach about hatred and intolerance," Smith says. "When I heard the survivor, I said to myself, 'That's perfect.'"

The first year, Smith and Roberts, charged with teaching the subject, "learned as much as the kids." They read from such texts as "Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl" and Elie Wiesel's "Night." They saw "Schindler's List" and other films about the Shoah.

But what was missing was some way to make the huge numbers of Nazi victims — 11 million civilians killed, 6 million of them Jewish — accessible to children growing up in a town of 1,600.

One of the students –no one remembers who — suggested, "Why don't we collect 6 million paper clips, one for each Jew killed in the Holocaust?"

Why paper clips? Because during the Second World War many people in occupied Norway wore them on their lapels to protest Nazi race policies and as a homage to Johan Vaaler, the Norwegian who took out the first paper clip patent in 1899.

On a tour of the school, I was shown the barrels and boxes of paper clips, displays of Holocaust photos covering the walls of the hallways, and other school projects, including a pile of shoes, and a drawing of concentration camp inmates in striped uniforms.

Student Drew Schedrick went to Auschwitz at the beginning of May. "It's amazing what they did to people there," he said. "Terrible and amazing."

How could it have happened?

"Hitler told people who followed him they were going through tough times and he'd help with food and money," said Elena Cookstar.

Finally we all went to the regional museum in Chattanooga to see a traveling exhibition, "Remembering Luboml," a vanished Polish town destroyed by the Nazis.

When a docent asked, "What is Yiddish?" no one answered. But while looking at another photo, she asked, "Who knows what matzah is?" and four of the kids jumped in.

"That's the bread they eat on Passover," they said, with their long Tennessee drawls.

"It's really amazing," Smith said, "that people all over the world are watching us teach our kids about kindness, tolerance and understanding."

Said Hooper, who has spent all her life as a local educator and school administrator: "This is what America is all about."