While studying the Holocaust, Whitwell Middle School students set out to collect 6 million paper clips to comprehend the number of Jews killed by the Nazis. They not only exceeded their goal, but with community help, created a memorial to those who died. Included: A description of a school-community effort to remember Holocaust victims.
What started as a small town school's effort to increase diversity awareness turned into a community-wide project to remember and honor those who died during the Holocaust that has generated international attention. That effort, which was launched at Whitwell (Tennessee) Middle School in 1998, is chronicled in the book, Six Million Paper Clips: The Making of a Children's Holocaust Memorial, written by German journalists Dagmar and Peter Schroeder.
Whitwell's population of 1,600 is fairly homogeneous, and middle school teachers decided to offer a course on the Holocaust to help students appreciate diversity and understand how dangerous intolerance can be. As Whitwell's students learned about the Holocaust, they found it difficult to conceptualize the number 6 million, which was the number of Jewish people killed during the Holocaust. A student suggested the school collect paper clips, since during World War II, non-Jewish Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels to show solidarity with Jewish citizens who were forced by the Nazi occupiers to wear yellow stars.
(Read about the early days of the Whitwell paper clip project in Paper Clip Drive Helps Students Learn About Holocaust.)
As word spread of the students' project, paper clips began pouring in from all over the world. Eventually, the school collected 30 million paper clips. Teachers began discussing a dignified way to display the paper clips, and soon plans evolved for a Holocaust memorial at the school, housed in a German rail car. The Schroeders located a rail car in Germany that likely had transported people to the concentration camps and had it delivered to Whitwell Middle School to become the memorial.
Now visitors come from all over the world to see the Children's Holocaust Memorial, where students serve as tour guides. Visitors can see one container holding 6 million paper clips, representing all of the Jewish people killed during the Holocaust, and another holding 5 million paper clips, a reminder of the others who died in the Nazi concentration camps. Whitwell students and teachers also help other schools that are starting Holocaust education programs.
The Schroeders talked with Education World about their involvement with the memorial and the hope and inspiration they gained from seeing students understand the consequences of unchecked intolerance and indifference.
Education World: Why was it important for you to tell this story to other children?
Dagmar and Peter Schroeder: We all know that children, the young adults, will be in charge to shape the future for themselves, their children, their grandchildren, and future generations. They should know what happened, and what can happen when you are not alert.
Also, they should be made aware that injustices of any kind start on a very small scale, and they can evolve into something bigger and bigger if unchecked. And the end result in all probability could be another catastrophic event like the Holocaust.
From a lot of letters we received we know that we are telling this story not only to other children, but to parents, educators, and survivors of the Holocaust, too. Because everyone involved in the project of The Children's Holocaust Memorial felt from the beginning that it should be a lesson in tolerance.
EW: Was it personally important for you to tell the story?
Schroeders: You see, we are parents and grandparents. And what we want for our children and grandchildren is a future without fear. To think that they or any other children would be subjected to the next Holocaust with another name, or any other genocide or persecution in the name of ethnicity, race, or whatever reason, is more than we can handle. And therefore we have to do our part to stop intolerances where we see them, and to encourage others to do their part. And here educators and parents have a very special obligation and responsibility.
EW: How can teachers use your book in the classroom?
Schroeders: It would be pretentious of us to tell teachers how they can do their jobs. But we can tell you what we discovered in schools, which is that these students, these young adults, have a pretty good idea about right and wrong. They can draw conclusions. When we tell students about the "precursors" of the Holocaust, about seemingly "innocent" anti-Semitic remarks and jokes, they can transplant this to their daily lives. They understand that you only have to substitute, let's say, "Jew" in a derogatory remark with "Black", Asian," "fat," "slow", stupid" or "dim-witted" to be already on the foundation of the "Pyramid of Hate". And that the next step could be exclusion, physical violence, and -- in the end -- possibly mass murder. This is not rocket science; it is simple reality.
Teachers tell us that they don't have to lay this out for their students. They read the book in their classes, and nearly everyone gets it. The discussions about the project in Whitwell Middle School we observed in classrooms start with factual information about the Holocaust and soon lead to more general discussions about tolerance. Hearing about it and witnessing this progression gives us as authors certain satisfaction, because this was and is our goal. The simple goal is to have students hearing about the Holocaust, thinking about it, discussing it, and then drawing conclusions. This is a dream fulfilled.
EW: Why do you think the students, and the whole town of Whitwell, embraced the project with such fervor?
Schroeders: Here we have to confess, that we can't be objective. Being part of the project nearly from the beginning, helping where we could, and counting a lot of participants as our friends now, we feel some constraints. But the overriding judgment would be that these people in Whitwell are "good people". As we near the time of Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 25, you will forgive us a Yiddish expression: Everyone involved in the project tried to be a "good mensch", and they succeeded.
At the start, everyone had the same problem: Nobody could imagine or comprehend what "six million" is. And from the beginning the people of Whitwell, a small town 1,600, felt the need to discover diversity, for the simple reason that they didn't have it. The town and its people are homogeneous and geographically (and economically) isolated. But they knew that on the outside the world was diverse. And they simply wanted to experience diversity.
The students, their teachers, the parents, and nearly everyone else in town wanted to learn. In the end, we suspect, they learned more than they imagined. One lesson learned is: Tolerance is not only what you can "give" to others, tolerance is also what you hopefully will receive. And: If you are not tolerant, open-minded, and brave enough to speak up, you can't expect it from others.
EW: How, if at all, have the school and town continued their lessons on tolerance?
Schroeders: As one of the students in Whitwell said, ``Now, I think before I judge.'' Look, the town is still not a City of all Angels, and you still have the occasional racist and bigot. But now there are a lot less of them. Not only students, even adults "got thinking" and they changed behavior. That is progress, isn't it? And it shows you the power of education.
And the students of Whitwell Middle School are now educators too: School classes from all over the country are coming to Whitwell to see The Children's Holocaust Memorial with their own eyes. The students of Whitwell tell visiting students what they've learned. We wish every middle and high school class could make the geographical, intellectual, and emotional journey. But in any case, reading the book Six Million Paper Clips for starters would, in our humble opinion, not be a bad idea.
EW: The project must have touched you in many ways. What was one of the things about the project that made a particular impression on you?
Schroeders: For us personally it was, after a long search, finding in Germany an original German rail car that was used to transport prisoners to concentration camps. And then to physically touch it and to see how this symbol of horrific injustice was received in a small town in the South of the United States and transformed into a symbol of hope and tolerance.
But more importantly: The most lasting impression is, how this project has literally changed lives and is changing the lives of young people. Not really directed, but led by educators, students are suddenly able to identify injustices in their own lives. Injustices they inflict casually on others or of which they are on the receiving end. And in a lot of cases [after reading the book] they decide to avoid "put-downs" or hurtful derogatory remarks. It makes everyone's life better. What else can a teacher (or some authors) ask for?
This e-interview with Dagmar and Peter Schroeder is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2008 Education World
Originally published 04/12/2006
Last updated 03/28/2008