Holocaust remembrance is daily at Appalachian middle school

By Art Toalston

WHITWELL, Tenn. – Every day is a Holocaust remembrance day at a middle school in the former Appalachian coal mining town of Whitwell, Tenn.

A Nazi rail car is the centerpiece of the Childrens’ Holocaust Memorial open to the public. It had carried 80 to 100 or more Jews per trip to the Auschwitz and Dachau death camps in a space 8 feet, 9 inches wide and 25 feet, 1 inch long.

Inside Whitwell Middle School, a library room encompasses an array of donated artifacts, including a drab jacket from a Nazi prison camp and a display of postcards by imprisoned Jews written mostly in Polish and now being translated for any family members who can be located.

The library, open by appointment, also houses a sweeping collection of Holocaust histories and survivor biographies and autobiographies and a century-old Torah from Lithuania.

Year-round — and especially on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27 — the backstory of the middle school’s memorial can be seen in the 2004 film “Paper Clips.”

The documentary-style film recounts what the school’s eighth-grade students and teachers began to accomplish in 1998 in an initiative to foster respect for others.

As Linda Hooper, now the school’s former principal, commented in the film, “We really have no diversity. There are no Jewish people, no Catholics, and in our school we have only five black kids and one Hispanic child. We’re all alike. And when we come up to someone who is not like us, we don’t have a clue.”

The Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews and 5 million others were put to death, was chosen as the initiative’s focus. Paper clips became its symbol after a student learned that a Norwegian invented them in 1899 and Norwegians wore them on their lapels in solidarity with hundreds of Jews who were removed from their midst by the Nazis.

Soon the idea to collect 6 million paper clips was sparked by another student trying to fathom, “What is 6 million?”

An influx of paper clips started after a 2001 Washington Post article led to a NBC Nightly News segment and a Holocaust survivor in her 90s bringing Whitwell Middle School to the attention of filmmakers. More than 100 three-inch binders in the library contain 30,000-plus letters from individuals who sent paper clips – many of them Holocaust survivors or their relatives – from across the country and from each continent.

Film production began in the spring of 2001, when three Holocaust survivors from New York, now deceased, came to visit the school. The 180 hours of filming over two years of visits to Whitwell (pronounced WHIT-well), 120 miles southeast of Nashville, was edited to a 1-hour and 23-minute release for theaters.

“Paper Clips” merited nods from Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and A.O. Scott of The New York Times and was named by the National Board of Review as one of 2004’s top five documentaries in addition to receiving Audience Choice Awards at the Washington and Atlanta Jewish film festivals and other film festival honors.

Today, “Paper Clips” remains a key part of Whitwell Middle School’s ongoing efforts in Holocaust education while underscoring what students are capable of achieving.

Taylor Kilgore, as a fifth-grader, helped count the flood of paper clips and saw the rail car’s arrival in Whitwell. As an eighth-grader, she was a tour guide for the memorial. In college, she majored in history, returning to Whitwell Middle School to teach in 2015.

She’s now finishing a master’s degree in Holocaust and genocide studies at Gratz College, a small college in Philadelphia that has offered Jewish studies since 1895.

In high school Kilgore decided she wanted to teach history, “and it was because of everything I learned in this project. … I’ve been learning about the Holocaust since I was literally 10. I read any book I could get my hands on when I was younger.”

Even with her master’s studies, she said, “You’ll never hear all the different stories that some of these survivors have experienced. It’s amazing how much information is out there that people don’t know about.”

Sandy Roberts, one of the initiative’s original teachers, began providing interactive Skype tours of the rail car memorial and library through Microsoft in Education last fall, conducting several dozen tours since mid-September, including one class in India.

Roberts has taught from a book, “I Have Lived a Thousand Lives,” since the Holocaust study began at Whitwell. The author, Livia Bitton-Jackson, was 13 when she saw her father taken away after Nazi forces invaded Hungary in 1944. She and her mother subsequently survived the horrors of Auschwitz.

“It’s my job to make that book come to life,” Roberts said. “To be able to give them the truth, to let them see it, experience it, understand it is so powerful.”

Roberts had the opportunity to meet Jackson during a 2018 trip to Israel. “I literally laid my head in her lap and cried … because she was and will always be one of the main reasons that I do this project.”

At the outdoor Childrens’ Holocaust Memorial, the renovated rail car contains 11 million paper clips in memory of Nazi victims. A steel monument topped by images of two playful children contains another 11 million. The paper clip count by students, teachers, parents and others in the community came to a close when the number reached 30 million. None of the paper clips have been discarded, but are being supplied to schools studying the Holocaust and given to visitors at the memorial.

Two-day teacher training is offered free of charge each June and July through an outgrowth of the initiative, the One Clip at a Time Foundation. Attendees spend a day learning a five-day Holocaust curriculum, which has been used in 35 states with the film, and a day at Whitwell Middle School interacting with Hooper and Roberts and another of the initial Holocaust study instructors, David Smith, now principal of Whitwell Elementary School.

Joe Fab of Vienna, Va., who scripted “Paper Clips” and was one of its two directors, said Whitwell’s Holocaust studies fuel his lament that young people often are seen “as human beings who will one day be ready to do something of value. And that’s completely wrong.”

“Children that age and other ages are absolutely capable of doing things that have great meaning,” Fab said. If their potential isn’t tapped until they finish high school or college, “think of the years of human contributions you are wasting.”

The middle school has occasioned a powerful symbol, said Peter Schroeder who, with his wife Dagmar, befriended the school in the fall of 1999 as Washington correspondents for a group of German newspapers. A 92-year-old Holocaust survivor had learned of the project through its registry with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and insisted that the couple visit Whitwell.

The Schroeders later located the rail car in Germany and raised funds for its journey to Whitwell.

“This car will not transport people anyone,” Schroeder, who now lives in Canada, said in “Paper Clips.” “This car will be a symbol. Symbols make us think. Symbols can change the world. And sometimes symbols are all we have to help us maintain our resolve even on our darkest and our most tragic days.”

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Art Toalston is a writer based in Nashville.

For information about visiting the Childrens’ Holocaust Memorial in Whitwell, Tenn., email whitwelltraveler@gmail.com. For information about teacher training through the One Clip at a Time Foundation, email info@oneclipatatime.org.