Whitwell, Tennessee, is a small, poor, rural town outside of Chattanooga. One resident says that there are probably lots of people in Chattanooga who don’t know Whitwell exists. The town is very homogeneous. There are neither any Jews nor Catholics who live there. In the town’s middle school, there are five African-American students and one Hispanic student. You wouldn’t really expect much of import to come from Whitwell – at least not something that would reach out and pull the world in to take a look at this town of 1,600.
Paper Clips shows us what happened in Whitwell when the school tried to find a way to teach diversity to the children of this community where everyone was alike. They offered a class on the Holocaust that would teach respect for people who are different. Little did they know that they had unleashed something that would grow so large as to include the world.
The film is not as polished as many documentaries. The filmmakers would probably profit from some mentoring in storytelling and editing. But in spite of the flaws, this film is an inspiring story that not only shows what a community can do, but tells of lives that are touched when people learn to share with one another.
About the second year of the Holocaust study, one of the students mentioned that they had no understanding of 6,000,000 (the estimate of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust). They soon discovered that in Norway, people wore paper clips to remember their Jewish neighbors who were being persecuted. Soon the task became to collect 6,000,000 paper clips. (To keep this in perspective, keep in mind this would weigh about 11,000 pounds.)
They sent letters to many people, receiving paper clips from celebrities like Tom Bosley, former President Clinton, and President Bush, but still, 6,000,000 was far from easy. After the initial response died down, they estimated it would take 10 years to get to that number. But then the press picked up the story, both in the US and in Germany. Soon the paper clips began to pour in.
But more important that the paper clips were the letters and the people that became part of the project. Soon, the students, besides the paper clips had over 30,000 letters which told stories of family members lost in the Holocaust. A small group of Holocaust survivors came from New York to this little town to share their stories. A train car used for transporting people to the death camps was found and brought over to house the paper clips. The school became the custodian of a small Holocaust memorial, filling the train care with 11,000,000 paper clips to remember all the victims of the Holocaust.
As inspiring as this paper clip project is, what makes the film worth watching is to meet these people – the children, the teachers, the out-of-towners who came to share themselves. We see that the paper clip project was truly a catalyst that made things happen in these people. It also served as a catalyst to transform the sense of community in this small Appalachian town to include the whole world. The film serves as another step in bringing us all into this community to be touched by their work, their openness and their dedication.
It also allows us to see and hear some of the remaining survivors of the camps. We know was we watch the film, that the day is not far off when all the survivors will be gone and we will only have what records of them as have been gathered. Their stories need to be recorded and remembered.
The use of paper clips as a remembrance I found very interesting. Paper clips mean nothing to me. They have a use, but I feel no remorse for tossing one away. It was this same attitude that was applied to people in the Holocaust – not just Jews, but also “gypsies”, gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups. They were just something to be used and tossed away. But when we see these 11,000,000 paper clips, we know that each represented a man, a woman, or a child who is no more. Each clip was not something of no worth, but something beyond worth as a child of God.
This inspirational film deserves to be seen. It blesses those who see it, just as the students and teachers of Whitwell Middle School, the community of Whitwell, Tennessee, and the whole world has been blessed by the Paper Clip Project