“You just want to teach a little lesson,” said retired principal Linda Hooper, and then you wake up one day and there is a movie about your school on Netflix.
I watched that documentary several years ago and finally made it to Whitwell, Tennessee, last summer to see the Children’s Holocaust Memorial.
In a little town about 45 minutes outside of Chattanooga, a few teachers worked together to teach lessons on tolerance through a study of the Holocaust.
They read a novel, wrote essays and studied the history of the Holocaust and World War II.
And then one day a student asked what six million people looked like.
Covington is a good bit bigger than Whitwell, but that question also resonated with me—what does six million people look like?
There are only 100,000 to 110,000 people in our entire county.
As part of the Holocaust study, students learned that Norwegians wore paperclips in solidarity with the Jewish people during World War II.
So, the students decided to collect six million paperclips. They wrote letters to politicians, celebrities and sporting teams.
As letters and paperclips trickled in, they carefully recorded each writer’s information and organized the letters into binders.
Paperclips were carefully counted and stored.
Some of those letters are so incredibly moving — letters like that of Henry Winkler, better known by many as “the Fonz.” He told the students how his parents escaped Nazi Germany, but that he grew up without grandparents, aunts or uncles because they did not escape in time.
He sent paperclips in their memory.
So many of the paperclips in the collection came in one by one, each in memory of a friend or family member lost.
Somewhere along the way, two White House correspondents from Germany picked up on the story. One story turned into another connection, which turned into a bigger story… and before you knew it Whitwell Middle School was on the national news scene.
Paperclips poured into the school in such large quantities the post office told the school they’d have to collect their own mail.
The principal said everyone in town was helping to count paperclips by this time, often in the wee hours of the morning.
And as the project grew far beyond anything ever imagined, so did the lesson.
A film crew showed up to film a documentary about the project.
Holocaust survivors visited Whitwell to speak to the community and school about their experiences.
This part of the documentary reminded me of Mr. Gross, who spoke to us at Cousins Middle School. I can’t tell you anything he said that day, but I have always remembered his tattoo. It was the same color green as my own grandfather’s WWII era tattoos, but it was just a simple number.
A simple number that made the Holocaust real to me as a middle school student.
As those who lived through that time disappear, what will bring this period of history to life for new generations? And so the Whitwell students continued their project.
Twenty million paperclips flooded into town. Eventually, the town obtained an actual railcar used in the Holocaust in which to store the paperclips.
But by this point, the students realized it wasn’t just 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Eleven million people were killed in the Holocaust — six million Jewish people as well as five million homosexuals, Gypsies and political prisoners.
How did I never realize that?
This school set out to teach “a little lesson” to their students, and today is using the movie and curriculum to inspire students everywhere to find their own “one clip at a time” way to learn about the world around them and do something bigger than themselves.
Middle and high school 4-H’ers this year in Newton County will learn more about the project and create a service learning project.
If you know someone local who might speak on their Holocaust experience, I would love to hear from you as we embark on our own service learning project.
Terri Kimble Fullerton is a Newton County 4-H Agent through UGA Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at email@example.com.