US, 2004, 82 minutes, Colour.
Directed by Elliot Berlin, Joe Fab.
Whitwell Middle School in rural Tennessee is the setting for this documentary about an extraordinary experiment in Holocaust education. Struggling to grasp the concept of six-million Holocaust victims, the students decide to collect six-million paper clips to better understand the extent of this crime against humanity. The film details how the students met Holocaust survivors from around the world and how the experience transformed them and their community.
This is a fine documentary. The subject is the Holocaust. The stars are children of Whitwell, Tennessee, their teachers and some of the concentration camp survivors. It seems an unlikely story and some over-fussy commentators have disliked the fact that it was American children who built this project, sounding intolerant about a project which focuses on tolerance and understanding.
David Smith, a teacher in Whitwell went to an in-service in Chatanooga and came back with the idea of involving some students after school in a project that would broaden their minds and outlooks. He mentions that there were no Jews or Catholics in Whitwell, one Hispanic student and one black. The children came from religious-minded, rural families. He suggested that they try to understand racism and bigotry by investigating the Holocaust. For several years around 2000, 25 students stayed behind after class and read, viewed, discussed experiences that were not part of their life at all.
One idea that emerged was that they would find a paper clip for the 6,000,000 Jews who died in the camps. The reason for clip was that it was invented in 1899 in Norway and was used by the Norwegians during the occupation as an anti-Nazi symbol to be worn: a paperclip over the swastika. At first they thought it would take ten years to collect the clips. However, when the media discovered the story and aired it on television, the clips came pouring in. The film-makers showed interest and invited some survivors to Whitwell to tell their stories which had a profound effect on the whole town as well as the students.
Another idea was to find a cattle train carriage that transported the Jews to the camps. A journalist German couple, the Schroeders, eventually found one. It was transported to the US and to Whitwell (in fact, in September 2001). The students turned it into a Holocaust memorial and welcome students to come on tours and listen to explanations. 11,000,000 paper clips are stored – for the Jews who died as well as all the other groups who were sent to the camps.
The film-makers had an enormous amount of material, following the students over the years, discussing with the teachers, especially the rather indomitable school principal, Linda Hooper, filming the survivors’ stories, tracking down the carriage and its transportation from Europe.
Was it presumptuous of Whitwell to follow through on this project? Were they misguided when they say that the carriage found its home in Whitwell? Fastidious questions. That teachers and students should try to understand some of the evils of history should be applauded.