S.F. artist presents mezuzah to Paper Clips school

Perhaps it was standing inside the Holocaust-era railcar filled with 11 million paper clips, each one symbolic of every Holocaust victim, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Or maybe it was affixing her “Hope” mezuzah at the school in front of predominately Protestant onlookers.

Aimee Golant can’t pinpoint why she was so emotional during a recent trip to Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tenn., which has a Holocaust library, a Torah scroll and the railcar seen in the award-winning 2004 documentary “Paper Clips.”

What she does know is she just couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.

“My emotions took me completely by surprise,” said Golant, a San Francisco metalsmith who crafts mezuzahs and jewelry. “Being an artist and coming from Holocaust survivors, I’m a sensitive person. Emotions aren’t something I normally hide, but I wasn’t expecting to stand there and sob.”

Golant and her mother-in-law, Helene Casella, arrived in Whitwell two weeks ago; Golant had made a mezuzah for the middle school’s new building, and she was invited to take part in the dedication ceremony Nov. 7.

At first, Golant was unsure if actually hanging the mezuzah — which she designed exclusively for the school — was going to be part of the day’s event. When she got the OK from Whitwell principal Linda Hooper, who also oversees the Holocaust programming, Golant was elated.

Standing in front of seventh- and eight-graders, other ceremony goers and a film crew from “One Clip at a Time,” the sequel to “Paper Clips,” Golant nailed the “Hope” mezuzah to the doorpost of the school’s Holocaust library.

An amalgamation of a flower and a candle’s flame, the mezuzah incorporates a wiry theme reminiscent of the paper clips.

Golant also passed around a large version of the mezuzah’s scripture to help her audience understand its origin and its function. Hers was a message of universality.

“When we put a mezuzah on our doorpost, it sets intentions for that space,” Golant explained. “This is a sanctuary; a place of love and kindness, compassion and truth. If we uphold the teaching, there will be protections for the school, and peace and justice on Earth.”

Golant arrived at Whitwell Middle School a day before the dedication and toured the new campus with her mother-in-law. They stopped at both the railcar and the Holocaust library, which houses the Torah and thousands of donated books, artifacts and letters from people who sent the paper clips.

As part of an after-school Holocaust program 10 years ago, students set out to collect paper clips when they discovered Norwegians wore them on their lapels in silent protest against Nazi occupation during World War II.

They originally hoped to gather

6 million, but that number ballooned to 11 million — the total number of Nazi-inflicted deaths — following an outpouring of media attention and support. The clips were placed into a

former Nazi transport railcar, which the students bought from Germany after a big fundraising effort.

To date, approximately 30 million paper clips have been sent to Whitwell Middle School.

Golant described her experience in the railcar in her blog: “As I neared the railcar, more tears drained from my eyes. I reflected on evil as I entered. The floorboards of the frail old railcar bent and creaked under my feet. I noticed there were no windows in the railcar — only spaces between the wooden slats where you could barely see light.”

Golant continued:

“I sobbed and swayed in the car surveying those 11 million paper clips. They were beautiful, actually — luminescent. It seemed like the people who made the memorial chose only the most beautiful paper clips to be on top — colorful ones, transparent ones.”

The granddaughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, Golant embarked on the emotional journey because of her ties to the Holocaust. She credits her grandparents with inspiring her to start making Judaica as a way to preserve Jewish traditions.

“I don’t know that I would have been so moved had my family not gone through the Holocaust,” Golant said. “Most families have a certain place inside of them that’s reserved for the Holocaust. It’s a very sad place. You could go to the place of Six Million and cry for the rest of your life.”

In the midst of her sadness, Golant said she realized just how remarkable it is for a school in the South to not only pay tribute to Jewish suffering, but to teach lessons derived from the Holocaust to its students.

“[Whitwell Middle School] shows an incredible amount of respect and dedication to our cause and story,” she said. “It shows that we can do a lot better than just tolerate one another.

“They created a special space that was very moving. Had it happened in New Jersey, I don’t think it would have made as much of an impact … nothing against New Jersey, of course.”