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Paper Clips
By Kent Lewis

I remember discussing the Holocaust in high school history class, and hearing a student near me whisper to a friend that the killing of millions Jews was just a "rumor." Although I know very little about Judaism, I am one of the tribe by blood, so the comment didn't sit well with me. Since then, I've felt strongly that every human being should be required to view Schindler's List as a reminder of both the atrocities and miracles of which humans are capable.

Just a few weeks ago, I was channel surfing late one Saturday night and the name of a documentary on HBO caught my eye, Paper Clips. I started watching and was immediately hooked. I was also instantly reminded of that doubting classmate so many years ago.

The film was borne out a class project on tolerance begun by two teachers at a middle school in rural Tennessee. Including the Holocaust as a key part of the project, the teachers informed their students that 6 million Jews died during the Holocaust, motivating one of the students to ask, "What is 6 million?" To represent what that number looked like, the class settled on the concept of collecting 6 million paper clips, a meaningful symbol as they were worn by Norwegians as a sign of patriotism and resistance against Nazi tyranny.

Over a three-year period, the students collected not 6 million paper clips but nearly 30 million. When done, they decided the best way to display them was to create a memorial out of an authentic German railcar used to transport victims to death camps during the war. The film documents the project through the grand opening of the Children's Holocaust Memorial, complete with 11 million paper clips (representing the 6 million Jews and 5 million gypsies, homosexuals and other marginal groups exterminated by the Nazis).

I found myself wrapped up in the story, and was particularly touched by how loving and understanding these students were, especially considering it was a middle school with no Jews, Catholics or Asians and only a handful of Hispanic and African-Americans. Not only did the children and their parents get involved, but the entire community also came together to help build the memorial. Paper Clips so moved me that I've added it to my list of movies every human being should see.

On the movie Web site, the school asks for donations to help maintain the memorial, create a scholarship and help fund a new building to house all the Holocaust items that have been collected since the paper clip project began.

I wanted to find out if there was anything I could do to help, so I contacted the principal. She informed me that the scholarship fund is in good condition and the building is under construction. Funds are now being sought primarily to help move the railcar and build a visitor's center. If you would like to contribute or learn more, please visit Whitwell Middle School's Web site.

If the students and citizens of a rural Tennessee town with "only two stoplights and one motel" can change the world with a school project, think what we can do as Americans and global citizens if we put our heads together. It's as simple as starting with one paper clip.

 

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