‘Paper Clips’ Continues to Link Crowds

Until recently, the riveting and much-acclaimed 2004 documentary, “Paper Clips” — which chronicles the attempt by the small, rural town of Whitwell, Tenn., to educate its students about the enormous number of Jews killed in the Holocaust — could be seen mostly at special screenings and community events. After an initial exclusive release of the DVD version to Blockbuster, as of March 7, the DVD has gone into general release so everyone can finally get a copy, which is sure to broaden the film’s exposure. And there’s also the book, “Six Million Paper Clips: The Making of a Children’s Holocaust Memorial,” by German journalists Peter W. Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, who played an instrumental role in helping the film succeed.

The book and the film were the focus of a recent gathering at the Museum of Tolerance’s Peltz Theatre, which featured a screening and a Q & A session with the writers and Miramax producer Matthew Hiltzik.

“Our 94-year-old friend, Lena Gitter, found out about the ‘Paper Clips’ project on the Internet,” Schroeder-Hildebrand explained during the talk following the screening. When the journalists learned of the project, they pitched in by sending letters to their press contacts, authoring nine articles about the project for a German newspaper and subsequently writing a book. Due to their efforts, the students’ collection went from 160,000 to more than 22 million.

A spirit of collaboration marked the filming process as well.

“So many people wanted to give of themselves to this project. The beauty was in the simplicity and letting it speak for itself … it shows what people can do together,” Hiltzik said.

“It’s unbelievable how many people were involved,” Schroeder-Hildebrand added.

By the project’s end, the children just needed to find a place to house the clips, as a memorial to the victims. The journalists volunteered to locate an authentic German railway car that had transported Jews to the gas chambers, so the children could transform it into a monument of hope.

“As Germans, did you find yourselves coming up to walls of prejudice?” one audience member asked.

“We encountered some resistance,” Peter Schroeder answered. “The German newspaper we write for grumbled that we were taking too much time off.”

In their book, the authors recount other hostile reactions, among them: “Another Holocaust memorial? It’s time to forget what happened 60 years ago.” Others, however, responded with good will. Finally, the pair found car No. 011-993 and raised the funds to bring it to Whitwell.

Elana Samuels, an assistant director at the Museum of Tolerance, praised the film for its message of tolerance and its positive portrayal of educators.

“Good teaching needs motivated educators … not necessarily with all the information, but with the desire to get it.”

She said this event meant a lot to the museum because it “brings history to life … it shows the beauty of interchange, of intergenerational dialogue.”

“Showing the film in Tennessee for the first time, I was the only Jew there,” Hiltzik said. “But a lady came over to me and said she’s also an outsider — because she was from Mississippi! I went to the cattle car, and putting on my tefillin there and knowing the circumstances … you did feel the souls.”


Students Link to Shoah With ‘Clips’


When George Jacobs heard about the children’s Holocaust project in Whitwell, Tenn., he immediately thought of Malka.

She was the emaciated young woman who had kissed the mezuzah on his lapel when the American airman had visited the infirmary at Mauthausen after World War II. When Jacobs returned several hours later, he learned that she had died; the memory was so painful that he told no one until he read about how in 2000, Whitwell middle-schoolers were collecting 6 million paper clips to commemorate the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Jacobs promptly mailed in a clip to represent Malka.

“[It] was so much of a closure for me,” he says in the powerful Miramax documentary, “Paper Clips.” “Malka has found a final resting place, not in Austria, Germany or Poland but in Appalachia, Tenn. I can’t get over that.”

Indeed, Whitwell (population 1,600) — with just two traffic lights, two gas stations, 10 churches and no Jews — seems an unusual place for a Holocaust memorial, especially one that has become an international cause cél?bre. But the low-income former mining community isn’t the first rural Christian town to teach tolerance through the Shoah, and to earn headlines in the process. Last week, students from Uniontown High in Uniontown, Kan., were in Los Angeles performing their internationally acclaimed play, “Life in a Jar,” about Holocaust rescuer Irena Sendler.

Whitwell’s project — like Uniontown’s — began because “our children didn’t have much opportunity to learn about other people,” middle school principal Linda Hooper said. So, in 1998, she sent assistant principal David Smith to a teacher training conference to “find something that would help students learn about other cultures.”

He found it in a Holocaust educational seminar.

“We had never discussed the subject in our high school, and to be honest I don’t think I’d ever met a Jew,” Smith told The Journal. “When the survivor was done speaking, I was in tears and I thought, ‘This is it. This is how we’re going to teach tolerance to our children.”

That October, Smith and a co-teacher began reading aloud to students from books such as Eli Wiesel’s “Night.” When the concept of 6 million proved incomprehensible to the middle-schoolers, the teenagers resolved to launch a collection to better understand the magnitude of the Shoah. They decided on paper clips after learning that Norwegians had worn them to show solidarity with Jews during the war.

After German journalists wrote articles and a book on the project, letters and clips from 19 countries inundated the school, including submissions from Tom Hanks and President Clinton.

“We counted paper clips night and day that summer,” Hooper said.

Meanwhile, students scrapped their initial idea to melt the collection into a sculpture: “These paper clips represented people who had been through the fire, and we did not want that to happen again,” Hooper said. Their new goal: to house the clips and documents in an actual cattle car that had transported Jews to concentration camps.

As international media descended on Whitwell, Hooper felt her community was undergoing trial by fire. Newspapers cited the town’s proximity to the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and to the courthouse where John T. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in the 1925 “monkey trial.”

“It was the image that people often get of the South: that we’re all stupid, prejudiced rednecks,” Hooper said.

Thus she ignored the Virginia-based filmmakers who called her twice a day for weeks about making “Paper Clips” in 2001. Hooper refused to speak with them, in fact, until she had “phoned everyone for whom they’d ever made a documentary,” she said.

When co-directors Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin finally sat down with her that spring, “she ushered us in, then kept us waiting,” Berlin recalled. When the tall, silver-haired principal finally looked up from her work, “She said, ‘If I let you make this film, and you make my children look like ignorant hillbillies, I will eat your heart for breakfast,” Fab said. “Somehow, we got her to understand that we wanted to make the movie because we already respected her children.”

Over the next 18 months, the directors captured the students as they sorted more than 30 million clips and awaited the cattle car that had been purchased for $6,000 from a German railroad museum. It arrived, via ship and rail, in time for the memorial’s dedication on Nov. 9, 2001, attended by the entire town.

“It was amazing seeing children sing ‘We Shall Never Forget’ who had never previously heard of the Holocaust,” Fab said.

Equally moving was the final interview with Smith: “When the project began, I was very prejudiced in many areas,” the assistant principal says in the film. “[The memorial] has made me a better … father, a better teacher, a better man.”

Jacobs is grateful for the endeavor.

“It’s giving [Malka] a resting place among young people who love her and have compassion for her, and you couldn’t ask for a better resting place than that,” he said.

“Paper Clips,” which recently won the Jewish Image Award for crosscultural understanding, opens Nov. 24 in Los Angeles. The Anti-Defamation League will provide educational materials on the film this spring; information will be available then at www.adl.org.