David Lawrence-Young – The Six Million Paper Clip Project
One month ago I returned home from a three week trip to the USA. The main reasons I had gone were to meet my publisher, in Fayeteville, North Carolina and to give a lecture about my historical novel, Six Million Accusers-Catching Adolf Eichmann. Thanks to the head-teacher, Kim Headrick, the lecture was given at Whitwell Middle School, Tennessee.
Why did I choose to lecture at this rural school, some twenty-five miles north of Chattanooga? The reason is simple. While I’d been writing and researching my novel about Eichmann, I’d come across this school and its very special paper clip project. I became so impressed by what I’d read that I felt that I had to travel from my home in Jerusalem to this far corner of Tennessee to see what it was all about at first hand.
In 1998, three members on the staff of the Whitwell Middle School (WMS), Sandra Roberts, Linda Hooper and David Smith initiated a project which aimed to show the enormity of the Holocaust in a meaningful way. Their students would collect six million paper clips as a way of remembering the six million Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis. Why paper clips? This simple device had been invented by a Norwegian, Johann Vaaler, and the Norwegians had worn it as a symbol of unity and resistance against the Nazis after they had been invaded in 1940.
At first the actual collecting of the paper clips went very slowly, and after a few weeks the pupils had managed to collect just under a thousand of them. Then they began writing letters to sports, TV and film celebrities, politicians and industrial leaders asking them to donate more clips for their project. The clips, together with touching letters and wartime artefacts from Holocaust survivors started flowing in, but still they were a long way from achieving their goal.
Then Coach Smith suggested that they publicize their project on the Internet, and soon after, boxes and boxes of clips began arriving at the school. When they were all collected and counted, despite all the noise and hopes, they had amassed only 160,000 paper clips. At this rate the students worked out that it would take well over 35 years for them to reach their target!
Then, one year later, in 1990, Dagmar and Peter Schroeder, a husband and wife team of White House correspondents who wrote for a group of German newspapers, heard about the project via the net. As a result, they wrote an article in the German press and within three weeks 46,000 more clips arrived at the school. The story was then picked up by other foreign newspapers, and soon box after box of paper clips started arriving at the Whitwell school.
It was at this point that the students learned that in addition to the six million Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis, another five million non-Jews had also been wiped out. The students therefore decided to increase their target so that they would now collect eleven million paper clips instead!
Parallel with all this frantic activity, it was clear that the school now had another problem: where would they store and what would they do with all of these clips? Various ideas were put forward. Melt them down to form a huge memorial sculpture. No, millions of people had been burned during the Holocaust so the idea of burning couldn’t be used again. How about putting them into some gigantic glass container? No, it wasn’t feasible. Then Sandra Roberts remembered what the students had seen during their visit to the Washington Holocaust Museum. How about storing the clips in an old railcar – the sort the Nazis had used to transport their millions of victims to Auschwitz, Birkenau, Sobibor and their other extermination camps?
This brilliant and moving solution was accepted, but it too created a new problem. Where did one find such a railcar? Over fifty years had passed since the Nazis had been defeated, and most of the railcars had disintegrated, had been broken up or had been converted into sleeping-cars and service wagons for the German railway network.
The initial excitement about finding a genuine ex-Nazi railcar evaporated as the months passed. However, after nearly half a year of searching though old railway yards, Dagmar and Peter Schroeder were finally able to report that they had found a suitable car. It was at the Eisenbahnverein Ganzlin e.V Rőbel (Ganzlin/Rőbel Railroad Club), but the Schroeders’ joy soon turned to ashes as the club manager refused to part with it. However, after the German couple had explained the importance of bringing it to the USA, he surrendered. Now all that was needed to be done was to transport the old wooden freight car from the north of Germany to the south-east United States.
And that is what happened. As a result of much international co-operation and volunteering by the German railroad company, a Norwegian freighter called ‘Blue Sky,’ the US Coast Guard and the American CSX rail company, the rail car was loaded onto a flatbed truck at Baltimore harbor for its final journey to Whitwell Middle School. That day was September 11, 2001. Some six hundred miles later and amid great excitement the railcar arrived at its pre-prepared site on the school grounds.
For in the meanwhile, many in the Whitwell community had pitched in to help make a Holocaust Memorial site that any other town would be proud of. Local gardeners and electricians, woodworkers and painters had all freely donated their time. By the time the huge crane lifted the railcar off the flatbed truck and set it down gently, this project which originally had started with the simple idea of collecting six million paper clips was now virtually completed. There, in front of a crowd of over 400 staff and students, the freight car, number 011-993, was lowered into position onto a section of rail track. Many clapped, while others cheered and jumped for joy. Others cried as they understood what this stark brown wooden freight car stood for.
On 9 November, 2001 nearly two thousand people including most of the town’s 1600 citizens attended the dedication ceremony. Here the rail car with its dark brown plaque and gold letters saying The Children’s Holocaust Memorial was first seen in public. The University of Chattanooga orchestra played, the Whitwell school choir sang and the students from an Atlanta Jewish Day School recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
But this ceremony was not the end of the story. People continued to send paper clips to the school, and in the end nearly thirty million (!) were collected. In addition to storing them in the rail car, another eleven million were stored in a special sealed container. The remaining clips were made available for other schools to start their own paper clip memorials.
In a similar way, this was not the end of my story, either. I had travelled all the way from Jerusalem to Whitwell to see this unique rail car and the school’s impressive Holocaust exhibition. Now as I stood there by this special memorial, even more affected than before, I planned (even though I knew I was not the first) to tell the world all about this school and its rail car full of paper clips. Standing there by the sign, “Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed students can change the world – one class at a time,” I couldn’t have agreed more.
For more see Google and Six Million Paper Clips by Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, published by Kar-Ben Publishing, Minneapolis, 2004.
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David Lawrence-Young – The Six Million Paper Clip Project