Sunday, October 11, 2009

Paper Clips

I watched a documentary tonight called Paper Clips. It is the amazing story of a middle school in Whitwell, Tennessee. Teachers there decided to teach about tolerance and open mindedness by presenting a class on the lessons of the Holocaust. At one point, when the students learned that six million Jews perished in the camps, one of them asked, How many is six million? I can't visualize that. This from a student who lives in an impoverished rural town of only 1,600 people.

So the students had the idea of collecting something, something small, to represent those six million lives. Doing research on the internet, they learned that in Norway, those who wanted to protest the terrors of the Nazi regime and the extermination of the Jews wore paper clips on their lapels or collars as a secret symbol. And so, the Paper Clip Project was born.

The students sent letters out to people all over the country, asking them to donate paper clips. Through a series of fortunate meetings, their message ended up being given on NBC Nightly News and in the Washington Post, and soon they were receiving paper clips from individuals such as former President Bush, former President Clinton, then-current President Bush, Bill Cosby, Tom Bosley and other celebrities. But far more moving was the outpouring of letters and paper clips from families who had lost relatives in the Holocaust, people who wrote stories, sent pictures, thanked the young people for this memorial act. By the end, the children had collected 29 million paper clips, each with a story, an outpouring of good will. Holocaust survivors, hearing of the project, came to visit the school, to share their memories in person.

Eventually, again through the kindness and dedication of caring individuals, and the commitment and participation of the entire town of Whitwell, they were able to erect a memorial on their school campus inside of an actual cattle car from Germany that had been used to transport victims to the death camps. Inside the railcar are 11 million paperclips, to represent the six million Jews and the five million other victims (homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles) who lost their lives. Now these eighth graders conduct field trips for visiting school children, telling them the lesson of the Holocaust, teaching tolerance, and passing on the stories.

This movie is powerful at so many levels. I was moved to tears again and again. It is such a message of hope, of possibilities. Even in the face of such horrific loss, the human capacity for compassion can and will be awakened if we allow ourselves to go there, to those dark and ugly places.

I highly recommend it. If a little town in Tennesse can open their hearts enough to hold the entire Holocaust - then I, too, am inspired to keep up this work, expanding loving kindness, daring to feel compassion, facing the darkness of the human soul that is inherent in all of us, without losing sight of the goodness that lies just underneath.

And I will never look at a paper clip the same way again. Each time I hold one in my hands, it will seem like a person's soul


  1. Dagmar Schroeder-HildebrandOctober 14, 2009 at 10:39 AM

    Dear Michelle Wing - great, that you liked the documentary "Paper Clips".
    There is also an accompanying book: "Six Million Paper Clips" you might enjoy. It is now nearly ten years that we started to help the children in Whitwell and we are very happy, that the project - in the beginning so small, that not even the whole school was aware of, what was going on - is very much alive and has touched thousands of people by now. Spread the word
    Many greetings
    Dagmar and Peter Schroeder

  2. Dagmar & Peter,
    I was so surprised to see your name in my comments log! Thanks for the note. I work for a small town weekly newspaper in Calistoga, California (population 5,000), and this week I reviewed "Paper Clips" on our movie review page. We're not online, but I'd love to send you a copy. Let me know how best to do that. Really, such an inspirational story. I still can't believe I watched you on the screen on Sunday, and heard from you in my blog on Tuesday. Small world. But I guess that was the heart of the "Paper Clips" lesson, wasn't it?