LESLIE CRISS: Documentary shows young people at their very best

By Leslie Criss/NEMS Daily Journal

“As the generation of Holocaust
survivors and liberators dwindles, the torch of remembrance,
of bearing witness, and of education must continue forward.”

– Dan Gillerman

“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”
– Maya Angelou

I watched a documentary last week and I’d like to recommend it to everyone – kids, teachers, parents, all manner of humanity.
It’s about an amazing principal, her teachers and some incredible students at Whitwell Middle School. The school’s in the tiny Tennessee town of Whitwell, about 35 minutes from Chattanooga.
Back in 1998, Principal Linda Hooper became concerned about the fact the kids in Whitwell hadn’t much of a clue about diversity.
You see, Whitwell, population about 1,660 and 98 percent Caucasian, was and is a homogeneous sort of town.
Hooper wanted students to learn more about the world outside the safe bounds of their hometown and to understand not everyone looks or thinks the same.
She enlisted the aid of a few of her teachers to help her vision become a reality, and it was decided they would study the Holocaust.
When the students learned that between 1939 and 1945 six million Jews were murdered under the authority of the Nazi government of Adolf Hitler, they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around it.
“What is six million?” many asked. Even their principal couldn’t fathom the depth of the atrocity.

Project born
In doing research, students learned that a loop of metal, designed by a man in the Netherlands, was worn on lapels during WWII as a silent protest against Nazi policies.
Thus, The Paper Clips Project was born.
Students wrote letters to friends, family and famous folks, telling about their project and asking for paper clips. Their goal? To collect six million paper clips, each one to symbolize the life of a Jewish person lost at the hands of Hitler.
At first it was slow going, but then Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, German-born journalists who covered the White House for German newspapers, got involved. And later Dita Smith of the Washington Post.
Holocaust survivors visited the Tennessee town and shared their personal stories.
Lives were changed.
Eighth-grade classes at Whitwell from 1998 to 2002 stuck with the project, which gained international attention.
Today, The Children’s Holocaust Memorial sits beside the Tennessee school. It is an authentic German rail car containing 11 million paper clips – six million for the Jews and five million for homosexuals, Polish Christians, Catholics and others deemed by Hitler to be unworthy of life.
This space and my words cannot adequately convey the power of The Paper Clips Project and how it changed the lives of young people and adults alike.
Watch the documentary “Paper Clips.”
I promise you will be moved. Probably to tears.

Contact Leslie Criss at leslie.criss@djournal.com or (662) 678-1584.