This is the touching story of Whitwell, Tennessee,a small coal mining community (population 1600) outside of Chatanooga. The population is almost entirely white and entirely Christian. When the local school set out to teach children about tolerance and diversity, the teachers realized that most of the children had never seen a person from another country or faith. So the school decided to teach students about the Holocaust in Germany during World War II.
As the students tried to come to grips with the Nazi genocide, they had a hard time visualizing the magnitude of the loss of six million people. They wanted to collect six million of something to represent the people who were killed.
The students did some research and learned that the paperclip was invented in Norway and that Norwegians wore paperclips on their collars to demonstrate their sympathy for the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other groups being persecuted by the Nazis. The students decided to collect six million paperclips and began writing letters to everyone they could think of to ask for help.
This documentary shows how the project grew from a classroom assignment to an event that transformed the entire community. At first, progress was slow. The teacher feared it would take the students ten years to collect 6 million paper clips. But two White House correspondents from Germany heard about the project and came to Whitwell to visit. They wrote about the school, and then the Washington Post wrote a story, and finally the network news reported on the remarkable events in Whitwell.
Millions of paperclips started to pour in from around the world. Some came with letters from Holocaust survivors, their families, American soldiers who helped to liberate the concentration camps, and celebrities from Tom Hanks to then-President Bill Clinton. Tiny Whitwell became a meeting place for people of hope from around the world. Everybody wanted to pitch in to help. A group of Holocaust survivors came to visit the school to tell their stories and the entire town turned out to welcome them.
But what makes this story — and this movie — work is not the big moments but the small ones. The documentarians don’t do anything fancy. They have the good sense to get out of the way and let the story be told by the people who lived it. The result can be a little sugary at times, but it is always honest and touching.
We see the students opening up and growing as human beings before our very eyes. A teacher admits that the project made him confront his own prejudices. A survivor says that what makes him cry is not his sadness in the camps but remembering the happiness he has had since. A hug, a look, a touch, the expressions on the young faces as they meet with people who survived the Nazi death camps and telling and touching.
An astonishing contribution to the project arrives from Germany — on September 9, 2001, and it will be en route when the terrorist attack occurs in New York and Washington.
This is an illuminating and moving film, not about the Holocaust so much as it is about compassion, learning, respect, and change. It should be essential viewing for middle and high school students and their families.
Parents should know that while the film is rated G because it does not have any bad words or nudity, the film is about the study of the Holocaust and the topic of genocide and discrimination is a theme of the film.
Families who see this movie should talk about what the teachers say they learned from the paperclip projects. One of the students refers to the project as a “life-changing experience.” What have been your life-changing experiences?” What can you do to help make the lessons of history more meaningful to your friends and family? How will the students continue to make the project meaningful now that the collection is complete?
Families who see this movie should look at the Whitwell middle school’s website, with more information about the paperclip project. They should also visit the United States Holocaust Museum and learn about the memorial to the Holocaust martyrs and heroes at Yad Vashem.
The Holocaust History Project is one of many worthwhile internet resources for further study, and Nizkor is an exceptionally useful site that frankly and candidly addresses issues raised by people who deny that the Holocaust took place, whether through ignorance or anti-Semitism. It is an outstanding example of how to deal with any sensitive issue that is the subject of debate, addressing all questions with consideration and dignity. There can be no better evidence of credibility and integrity than this: “Nizkor believes that truth has no need for secrecy. We present the material of the Holocaust-deniers unaltered and completely openly, with links back to their web sites so that the reader may examine exactly what they say. And if and when they have a response to our work, we will of course cross-link to it, so that the reader may examine that response.”