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Paper Clips

A project by a school in a small Tennessee town to collect six million paper clips, so that its students can gain an appreciation for the size of the Holocaust, seems at first glance almost silly, almost inappropriate.

But the Whitwell Middle School Children's Holocaust Memorial & Paper Clip Project takes on a life of its own, reaching out far beyond the borders of its tiny, almost all-white, all Christian community, one that in many ways exemplifies the stereotype of the insular, small town South: "What do Germans look like?" wonder some of the children. But it attracts national, then international attention, becoming a central focus in the lives of teachers and students over several years.

The lessons of tolerance and diversity becomes powerful, not because of the sheer magnitude of the paper clips gathered (around 29 million at last count), but because of the personal stories that are revealed by those it touches. A teacher is made aware of his father's, and his own, prejudices and propensity to stereotype through the project and is keenly aware of the need to pass on his lesson to his own children. A Jewish American GI remembers a victim he helped liberate - too late - from a concentration camp, and through the project, reaches catharsis. A group of survivors travel to Whitwell and tell their stories to the community, and as one of them says, every survivor has a story, and in the process expand minds and open hearts.

The documentary takes us through to after September 11 and while that event isn't explicitly referred to (other than in one caption), it does layer the film with strange, uncertain resonances. Will the project's lessons survive in this new "all Muslims are Islamic fascist terrorists" world? Or will the message be distorted? The most visible victims of the Holocaust were Jews, after all, and all to often the current situation is presented in terms of simple "Islam vs Judaism/Christianity", us-versus-them paradigms.

One of the survivors speaks movingly of how glad he is to have come to America, and during the memorial's dedication ceremony (taking place in November 2001) the school's principal states how proud she is to be an American to - understandably - wild applause and cheers from the crowd, some of whom have already started to wear the now obligatory American flag lapel pins. Too easily pride in one's country is distorted into blind nationalism; hopefully this won't be the case for those who have collected, sent, supported or just heard about the Paper Clips project.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 4, 2006 1:38 PM.

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