Whitwell Middle School, located within the Sequatchie Valley of Southeast Tennessee, is home to one of the world’s most profound remembrances of the Holocaust victims of Nazi Germany: the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, which opened as a symbol of hope 13 years ago this month.
The memorial is the result of the efforts of the school’s former principal, Linda Hooper, and teachers Sandra Roberts and David Smith, who began an eighth-grade Holocaust education class in 1998 to teach diversity in their small, mostly white, Christian community.
The Holocaust took place between the years of 1933 and 1945 and resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis in Europe. Other groups were persecuted during this period (the handicapped, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles and Gypsies); however, the Jews were targeted by the Nazis for complete annihilation.
When the class began, students were unable to grasp the sheer number of people murdered during the Holocaust. Teachers and students decided to gather paper clips-which many Norwegians wore on their lapels as a silent protest to Nazi occupation during World War II-to represent each person killed under the authority of the Nazi government of Adolf Hitler.
The school created a website, and students sent letters to friends, family and celebrities in hopes of collecting 6 million paper clips.
International attention to the effort began when Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, journalists who were born in Germany during World War II and who covered the White House for German newspapers, wrote a book about the project, “Das Büroklammer-Projekt” (“The Paper Clip Project”), to promote it in Germany. Also, in 2001, Dita Smith wrote about the Whitwell Middle School project for The Washington Post.
The first paper clip came from Lena Glitter, a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor from Washington, D.C., and a friend of the Schroeders. Students corresponded with other Holocaust survivors and their families, and many donated a paper clip on behalf of family members, friends or other victims of the Holocaust.
American politicians and celebrities, including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, also sent in paper clips.
The Children’s Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell Middle School was dedicated Nov. 9, 2001, complete with an official German railcar that was used to transport Jewish detainees to Nazi death camps. Today, the railcar stands as a testament to the tragedy-and it is filled with more than 30 million paper clips collected from people around the world.
Paper clips are encased at each end of the railcar, with letters and mementos displayed among the paper clips. The students, staff and community of Whitwell Middle School have transformed the German railcar into a symbol of renewed life honoring the lives of those murdered by the Nazis.
To date, the memorial has also received more than 30,000 letters, documents, books and artifacts, which have been catalogued by students and are on display in the Children’s Holocaust Memorial Research Room at Whitwell Middle School.
In 2004, an award-winning documentary film about the project, “Paper Clips,” was released by Miramax Films.
“The paper clips project has been an affirmation of my beliefs that education is absolutely essential to change,” Linda Hooper, former Whitwell Middle School principal, said. “Everyone must study the past so that we do not forget or repeat our mistakes.”
Individuals, visitors and groups are welcome to tour the Children’s Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell Middle School. To schedule a tour, email Hooper at [email protected] or call 423-658-7669.
For more information on the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, please visit the museum website.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a Chattanooga-based writer and naturalist who enjoys promoting the region’s historical, cultural and natural assets through her work with the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.