Paper Clips memorial shows how small idea touches many

whitwell, tenn. | Whitwell Middle School students hoped to collect 6 million paper clips — one to remember each person killed in the Holocaust.

But as word of the school project spread, people all over the world started sending paper clips to the small town in southeast Tennessee, more paper clips than they could have imagined.

The seventh- and eighth-graders have gathered 30 million paper clips since the project began in 1998, many accompanied by grateful letters from Holocaust survivors.

“I’d never seen a million of anything — maybe 106,000 people at a [University of Tennessee] football game,’ said English teacher Sandy Roberts, who helped start the project.

Now the Children’s Holocaust Project in Whitwell is the subject of a new Miramax-released documentary titled “Paper Clips,’ opening this week in Los Angeles and in San Francisco in a few weeks.

Roberts and assistant principal David Smith started the project as a way to study tolerance and diversity by looking at the systematic murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.

That was important to the educators because there’s not much ethnic or religious diversity at Whitwell Middle. Nearly all the students are white; nearly everyone is a Baptist or Methodist. “It basically has given them a chance to see cultures outside the Sequatchie Valley,’ Smith said. “I know no Jews or Catholics here.’

After learning that some Norwegians wore paper clips on their clothing during World War II in defiance of the Nazis and in solidarity with Jews, the Whitwell students began bringing in paper clips from home and from friends.

They eventually set up a Web site asking people to send in paper clips and share their feelings about the Holocaust.

The letters began trickling in — one from a woman in Tyler, Texas, another from New Zealand. Roberts said she started counting paper clips at 5:30 a.m. some days. By the end of the first year, they had 700,000. By mid-2001, more than 20 million clips and 10,000 letters were collected.

Among them were letters from President Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore (a native Tennessean), as well as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. There were also letters from 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.

The project got a boost when German journalists Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand and Peter Schroeder featured it in their syndicated column and later in a book.

Suddenly the paper clips were arriving from everywhere, millions of them.

The Schroeders traveled in Germany to find a wooden rail car used by the Nazis to transport Jews to concentration camps. The car, built in 1917, now sits at Whitwell Middle School as a memorial and as a place to hold millions of their paper clips.

Roberts said the project generated a sense of pride and awareness among the students.

“It does change the way we look at humans,’ Roberts said. “If I teach you about life and the world in which you live and make you a better human being, then I have been successful.’

Holocaust survivor Sam Sitko of Woodmere, N.Y., recently visited the school and spoke to the students about being beaten by Nazi soldiers and seeing his father starve to death in concentration camps.

“Beatings were the order of the day,’ Sitko said of the six years after Nazis hauled him away as a 16-year-old boy with his family in a railroad car. “Every day I woke up during those six years trembling for my life.’

Eighth-grader Hailey Yeargan wiped away tears during Sitko’s speech and hugged him afterward.

“It’s just not right,’ she said.

Sitko stepped inside the school’s German rail car that once carried other Jewish men, women and children to their deaths. He said that while traveling in a rail car he watched as “thirsty children licked condensation on windows.’

Sitko showed a copy of “Paper Clips’ to his rabbi. “He called me the next day and said, ‘Mr. Sitko, this is a powerful film.”