Whitwell Middle School Holocaust Group: Paperclip Project:
May 1, 2001 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Whitwell Middle School Holocaust Group: Paperclip Project: During World War II, Norwegians wore paper-clips on their clothes to silently show their opposition to Nazism and anti-Semitism. The eighth-graders at this Tennessee middle school are learning about the Holocaust and are collecting 6 million paperclips as a reminder of what happened. [More inside]
posted by ahughey (22 comments total)
In 1998 deputy principal and football coach David Smith, at Whitwell Middle School (Whitwell, Tennessee) attended a teacher training course in nearby Chattanooga. He came back and proposed that an after-school course on the Holocaust be offered at the school. This-in a school with hardly any ethnic and no Jewish students.

English and social sciences teacher Sandra Roberts was selected to teach, and in October, 1998 she held the first session. She began by reading aloud from Anne Frank's DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL and Elie Wiesel's NIGHT. She read aloud because most of the students could not afford to buy books.

What gripped the eighth graders most as the course progressed, was the sheer number of Jews put to death by the Third Reich. Six million. They could hardly fathom such an immense figure.

One day, Roberts was explaining to the class that some compassionate people in 1940s Europe stood up for the Jews. After the Nazis invaded Norway, many courageous Norwegians expressed solidarity with their Jewish fellow citizens by pinning ordinary paper clips to their lapels, as Jews were forced to wear a Star of David on theirs.

Then someone had the idea to collect six million paper clips to represent the six million Holocaust victims. The idea caught on, and the students began bringing in paper clips, from home, from aunts and uncles and friends. They set up a Web page. A few weeks later, the first letter arrived-then others. Many contained paper clips. By the end of the school year, the group had assembled 100,000 clips. But it occurred to the teachers that collecting six million paper clips at that rate would take a lifetime.

The group's activities have long spilled over from Roberts' classroom. It's now called the Holocaust Project. Across the hall, students have created a concentration camp simulation with paper cutouts of themselves pasted on the wall. Chicken wire stretches across the wall to represent electrified fences. Wire mesh is hung with shoes to represent the millions of shoes the victims left behind when they were marched to death chambers. And every year now they reenact the "walk" to give students at least an inkling of what people must have felt when Nazi guards marched them off to camps.

Meanwhile, the paper clip counting continues. Students gather for their Wednesday meeting, each wearing the group's polo shirt emblazoned: "Changing the World, One Clip at a Time." All sorts of clips arrive-silver and bronze colored clips, colorful plastic-coated clips, small clips, large clips, round clips, triangular clips and even clips fashioned from wood. The students file all the letters they receive in ring binders.

Their plan is to obtain an authentic German railroad car from the 1940s, one that may have actually transported victims to camps. The car will be turned into a museum that will house all the paper clips, as well as display the many letters received from around the world.

posted by ahughey at 1:44 PM on May 1, 2001

Trivia: Many Norwegians -- in addition to displaying paper binders on their jackets -- also displayed combs in their pockets, because the word for combing and managing are the same in Norwegian, and thus "we comb ourselves" was secretly synonymous with "we'll manage (despite the Germans)" in resistance groups.
posted by frednorman at 2:01 PM on May 1, 2001

Well, good thing they aren't celebrating the US's "Project Paperclip".
posted by mblandi at 2:06 PM on May 1, 2001

I'm sorry, but collecting paperclips seems like a really stupid, trivializing thing. This is very disappointing.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:12 PM on May 1, 2001

I'm sorry, but collecting paperclips seems like a really stupid, trivializing thing. This is very disappointing.

They're middle schoolers. In rural Tennessee. Give 'em a little credit.

This project is educating not only hundreds of students, but a community too. I think it's touching; this a tribute thought up and organzied by children.
posted by jennak at 2:40 PM on May 1, 2001

Wait, let me guess -- one of the kids is dying of cancer and wants to get into the Guinness Book of Records for having the most paper clips?
posted by kindall at 3:01 PM on May 1, 2001

I'm sorry, but shinny little objects which affix pieces of paper....it's not millions of little smiley faces, but its too far in that direction. And middle school isn't that young. Actually, age is irrelevant.
posted by ParisParamus at 3:06 PM on May 1, 2001

"I'm sorry, but shinny little objects which affix pieces of paper"
Paris, have you read the article? Because I think you're missing the fact that paperclips held a certain historical significance in this instance, making them a little more than what you're implying.
posted by Doug at 3:08 PM on May 1, 2001

The point of the paper clips seems to be missed. It is not to substitute a smiling (?) face for a paperclip but rather to try to help young people grasp how many human beings 6 million is. We all have difficulty visualizing large numbers. Even Bill Gates must have problem trying to envision what his zillions is like when stacked up in bills.
posted by Postroad at 3:52 PM on May 1, 2001

Then someone had the idea to collect six million paper clips to represent the six million Holocaust victims.

was it a student or a teacher i wonder?
posted by fuzzygeek at 3:56 PM on May 1, 2001

Of course it was a teacher. Could a student have such a stupid idea?
posted by jrbender at 4:58 PM on May 1, 2001

Again (expanded version): It just feels trivializing. I think I feel this way because (1) the implication is that once they've collected 6 million, or 10 million or whatever paper clips, it suggests they've come meaningfully closer to understanding what took place; (2) as objects, paperclips are to "happy" banal, fungible, inexpensive, disposable objects (if forced to choose a substitute I would suggest pebbles].) (3) THAT WEB SITE IS OFFENSIVELY HAPPY(4) Norwegians were not attempting to understand the Shoah/Holocaust; merely protest the occupation of their country. I'm sure there are more, but those are the main ones. Look. these people may have had good intentions, but I think the result is offensive.
posted by ParisParamus at 5:24 PM on May 1, 2001

Trivial or not, it makes people remember, it makes people aware, and that's what is important.
posted by taravali at 5:36 PM on May 1, 2001

In a weird way it's their tribute to our ability to manage the sort of managerial nightmare killing 6 million people must have been. It's an educational process all right, and it's all about the sheer size and impressiveness of the Nazi's accomplishment. 6 million! Perhaps they could collect 3 million thumbtacks for the 3 million (alleged) communists and 1 million alligator clips for the 1 million (alleged) homosexuals also executed.

And what is this about people sending in paper clips from all over, to this centralized mock camp? "I haf no use vor deese tiny, misshapen klippen" writes Auntie, sending her "surplus." It's just bizarre.

Of course 50 years is a long time, though, we are entitled to treat it like any other massive and pleasantly distant historical and picturesquely vivid atrocity like the pyramids or the Grrr-reat Depression.
posted by mitchel at 7:40 PM on May 1, 2001

The point is not to have one paperclip so it can represent one person. The point is to have six million of something so you/people/kids/rural tensee can comprehend how incomprehensible "six million people" really is. Then contemplate that that wasn`t the whole story: many millions more were killed and all of those people suffered greatly, as did all of the suvivors.

One of the the stories I`ve heard of people visiting Auschwitz is that there is a series of cabins containing something like 80,000 pairs of shoes. The point is not to have one pair of shoes for each person there, but to show how many people people were actually killed at Aucshwitz by showing an incomrehensible number of something we understand. Would you call those houses full of shoes trivializing?

At the same time, the site does seem to be a bit cheery for the subject matter.
posted by chiheisen at 12:11 AM on May 2, 2001

What's wrong with cheery? During the early years of American history, black slaves would celebrate during funerals and mourn births. From their perspective it was totally legitimate. We should not look back upon the Holocaust in anger. I say it's cause for celebration! So long as we never forget.

Y'know no matter how you might approach this topic to a middle school classroom, it's gonna be trivializing the issue. I applaud the school system in question for at least giving it a valiant effort, even if those efforts sound akin to organizing a high school dance. Let's say you just looked at it mathematically - which might be how some teachers and school administrators might opt to dismiss it. There were approximately three billion people on the planet in the 1940s (if that). Six million is only 1/50th of the entire world's population at the time. Such a fraction of humanity sounds pretty trivial doesn't it? Even this seems trivial to me. A webpage. Big deal. How can a simple website entertain the scope and dynamic of the event in question with any decency and honor?

It can't. The important thing is it tries. It gets the word out. It helps to insure that we forever remember. That we never forget. And most importantly that we never let this happen again. And make no mistake. This is happening again, though not necessarily to Jews. There are people in third world countries being starved to death because the ruling militaristic governments where they live literally steal food from them to keep them from being strong enough to rebel. Maybe that's not as bad as what Hitler's crew did, but where is the line drawn for comparison before it becomes equal to "crimes against humanity"? The Gates of Auschwitz are not just a Jewish legacy, any more than it should be considered forever a blemish on just german peoples. It was a world-event. Though I do not believe we all share any guilt, we each and every one of us do share the burden and the triumph. It is a reflection upon humanity. It shows what horrid atrocities humanity as a whole is capable of commiting to itself. It should never be forgotten. It should forever be a reminder to the dangers of barbaric ignorance and distorted fact.

It is also something to be celebrated: a steadfast noble firestorm of the human spirit. We survived this. Not just that old man you once met somewhere somewhen who had that weird tattoo on his arm. Each and every one of us, as descendants of those who helped to end the threatening third reich and prevail over that adversity, as humanity we survived this atrocity a splinter of humanity placed upon itself. And each and every one of us, if we work together, can insure this never happens again. We can rise above that which makes humanity base and vile, and be more than mere animals which kill their own. We can see that by damaging other human beings, we only pain ourselves. In fact, damaging the very environment of this planet is only causing harm to ourselves. No Hitler is an island, and neither is any other man. What kills one can harm us all.

String all those silly paper clips together and find out how long they would be. Would they stretch over the potomac river? The mississippi? Put them all on a large set of scales and weigh them. What is six million grams equivalent to in pounds? Now multiply that by the average weight for a human being. These paper clips can help someone grasp in their mind just how many fellow human lives on this planet were lost forever because of the atrocities and unthinkable acts of a peer splinter of mankind. The Nazi assault and attempted genocide of an entire culture of people. SIX MILLION PEOPLE. Can you see that many people just in your head? I can't. I can't even see that many paper clips in my mind's eye. However, if I could see them all in one place, touch them, count them, witness them on display before me with detailed descriptions of how long it took to amass them all and how many were involved and what an impact such a project has had on both the local and international communities, perhaps then I'd have a vague idea what it meant to be one of those people: to have my home, my family, my freedoms and a life I'd taken for granted ripped away from me without just cause, to slowly feel myself being starved to death, to become emaciated and to struggle daily the taunts and tortures and psychological deterioration and attacks on my will and beliefs, then led to a chamber that would poison my very life's breath by faceless cowardly men who lied themselves into thinking that I was less than human and they were more when their actions proved the opposite. Maybe I'd have just a glimpse of it, and even that would be but trivial.

If you are better than me and can picture all those six million suffering in this way, in your mind's eye, can you picture all the lives that those people would have touched had they been allowed to live and die without nazi oppression? If piling six million paper clips in one place can convey the very scope of that number to a child who might grow up to discover how poverty, malnourishment and starvation can be forever erased from human society, I say don't knock it. I say give it a chance. Next chance I get I think I'll drink a beer in honor of those who gave their lives so that humanity would get that dark glimpse in the mirror, and see where never to tread. A trivial, ignorant thing to do? Merely raise a small glass of alcohol in honor of those who were denied such a trivial thing that I so take for granted? Perhaps, but at least I'll never forget. Just as I never let myself forget that my inalienable rights were protected when American blood was spilled on the shores of Normandy, and so many other times before and since. So that I can take so much for granted. The loss of those six million is no less important a sacrifice. If we ever let ourselves forget, we'll have to spill our own blood all over again.
posted by ZachsMind at 1:09 AM on May 2, 2001

The pictures of the "mock-camp" along the halls of the school struck me as a little morbid and inappropriate....

...until I remembered that when I was in middle school, I used to write numbers on my forearm, like the ones I saw from time to time on the old guys in the synagogue.

I suppose that, like me at their age, the kids at Whitwell are trying to make a concrete reality out of something that is difficult to comprehend.

But what I find interesting about these kinds of memorials, is how they concentrate on the numbers: so many people, so many clips, so many shoes, almost as if you could understand genocide just by counting.

I also wish they had chosen a different project. The Holocaust is now the prototypical genocide, which draws attention away from the fact that genocide and mass-killings continue to happen. I'm sure it's convenient to teachers that there is a lot of teaching material relating to the Holocaust as opposed to other genocides, but this subject should be as difficult to teach as it is to learn.
posted by idiolect at 2:23 PM on May 2, 2001

Would you call those houses full of shoes trivializing? No.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:32 PM on May 2, 2001

I was really impressed by this project because I tried to teach high school english. The first day of school a kid tried assault me in class. I went back the next day and told my classes that I now understand why people prefer to have pets in the place of children. You would never catch a dog doing that to someone who was trying to help. (I then quit.)
It may seem like a cliched thing to do a project on the Holocaust, but building "mock camps" and so forth helps the students understand what it was really like in more concrete way than reading. I took a course called "the history of Germany during world war two" in high school. We learned about all kinds of terrible things, but nothing was as powerful as a mock selection that one of the teachers staged. He herded us into the courtyard. He made us take off our coats, our jewelry, and our shoes. He made us run around and then he made selections. (This was in october.) You can read and imagine all you like, but that selection was really a powerful experience.
posted by miss-lapin at 3:18 PM on May 2, 2001

>The point is not to have one paperclip so it can represent >one person.

I know what the "point" is - what their goal was. But the fact is, the fact behind the "point," is that they are recreating the incarceration of the jews but with paperclips, to see if they can do it, by gum. They are recreating the holocaust with paperclips, you know, collecting these worthless objects into a huge mound, having them sent to a central location from all over, doing it for educational purposes - to improve themselves.

Think about it. They are pretending to be the Nazis. That's all I'm saying. It's strange.

Besides the fact that it's such a cliche to collect stuff to represent the holocaust that it's utterly trivial.
posted by mitchel at 3:27 PM on May 2, 2001

It's a cliche when you're an adult and have seen this over and over. When you're in middle school and you're first trying to grasp the concept of just how many people died, I wouldn't call it a cliche. These kids and their teachers aren't high-level researchers -- they're simply trying to get some idea of what it was like. If collecting paperclips helps them do that, improves their understanding of racial/cultural/religious diversity, then I don't think collecting paperclips is trivial.
posted by lissa at 5:43 AM on May 3, 2001

If they were pretending to be Nazis, I think they'd be using something bigger than a paperclip. They are insuring that future generations never forget and I would like to think any person who suffered through the Nazi occupation and survived would at least appreciate that sentiment.

Never Forget.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:47 AM on May 10, 2001

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