Tucked away in the scenic Sequatchie Valley of Tennessee lies the small but impressive community of Whitwell, which boasts a school system second to none. And the cornerstone of Whitwell’s Middle School is their Holocaust Paper Clip Project and Museum.
The Beginning of the Paper Clip Project
In 1998 eighth grade students at Whitwell Middle School began an after-school study of the Holocaust. The goal of this study was to teach students the importance of respecting different cultures as well as understanding the effects of intolerance. As the study progressed, the sheer number of Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis overwhelmed the students. Six million was a number that the students could not remotely grasp. The students asked Sandra Roberts and David Smith if they could collect something to help them understand the enormity of this extermination. The teachers told the students to ask permission of principal, Linda M. Hooper. She gave the students permission to begin a collection, IF, they could find something to collect that would have meaning to the project. After some research on the Internet, the students decided to collect paper clips because they discovered that 1) Joseph Valler, a Norwegian Jew is credited as having invented the paper clip and 2) that Norwegians wore them on their lapels as a silent protest against Nazi occupation in WWII.
Students began bringing in paper clips. They wrote letters to famous people asking for a paper clip. The students also asked people to share their reasons for sending a paper clip. To date over 30 million paperclips have been sent to Whitwell Middle School. In addition, the project has received 30 thousand + letters, documents, books, and artifacts. All of these have been counted and catalogued by students and are on display in the Children’s Holocaust Memorial Research Room located at the school.
The paper clip collection has become a part of the “Children’s Holocaust Memorial” created by the students, staff, and community of Whitwell Middle School. The Memorial contains 11 million paper clips housed in an authentic German transport car honoring the lives of all people murdered by the Nazis. And eleven million other paper clips are contained in a monument honoring the children of the Holocaust. Orginally, eighteen (for chai-Hebrew for life) butterflies (the Christian symbol of renewal and the Children of Terezine) enhanced the grounds around the rail car. Over the years, visitors have left several more butterflies. The students, staff, and community of Whitwell Middle School have transformed the car from a death car into a symbol of renewed life honoring the lives of those murdered by the Nazis. For generations of Whitwell students, a paper clip will never again be just a paper clip. Instead, the paper clip is a reminder of the importance of perseverance, empathy, tolerance, and understanding.
Rail Car History
The Children’s Holocaust Memorial consists of an authentic German rail car that was used to transport victims to concentration, labor, and death camps. The rail car houses eleven million paper clips, one for each victim of the Holocaust. A small park surrounds the car. Orginally there were eighteen butterflies some inlaid with stained glass and others free standing copper sculptures. Over the years visitors have left additional butterflies so the number grows daily. There is also a monument honoring the children lost in the Holocaust. The Holocaust Research Room houses over thirty thousand letters, a collection of Holocaust books, artifacts, and art.
Facts and brief history of the rail car:
This rail car was built in 1917 and used for many purposes over the years. After being bought by a German state-owned company in the late 1970’s, the car was used for intra-company transport and then abandoned. During World War II, the Third Reich used this car to transport prisoners to camps. The car was discovered after the war in Poland, near the town of Chelmno. It was used as a grain car after World War II. The grain holes in the floor and the ventilation hole in the roof were put in after the war. This historic rail car transported 80 to 150 prisoners at a time to the camps.
The rail car at Whitwell Middle School was part of the “German Reichsbahn” and is one of the very last remaining “cattle cars” of the Nazi era. This car was located in a railroad museum in Robel, Germany. Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder Hildebrand (White House correspondents for German newspapers) purchased the car and donated it to Whitwell Middle School. This German rail car, numbered 011-993, was also used in the European film “Stalingrad” and in the U.S. film “Enemy at the Gate”.
How the car made it to Whitwell:
When the Schroeders purchased the car from the museum in Robel, they took on the daunting task of getting the car to Whitwell. After inspection by technicians of the German rail company, the car was declared “rollable” (maximum speed of 30 miles per hour). The German Armed Forces had the car sprayed and disinfected for foreign insects. The “Deutsche Bahn” had a decorative locomotive in front of the car and towed it under official designation “Special Train Holocaust Memorial”. The car traveled 300 miles to the German port of Cuxhaven.
By special arrangement with the German Armed Forces, the Memorial Car was placed on the chartered Norwegian freighter “MS Blue Sky” and was transported to the United States port of Baltimore.
Upon arrival in the United States, the car had to be cleared through customs and the required inspections of the US Dept. of Agriculture. From Baltimore, the CSX Rail Company transported the car to Chattanooga, Tennessee via one of their flatbed rail cars because the wheel gage of the German car conflicted with American rails. Fletcher Trucking Company of Whitwell, Tennessee provided the transportation for the final leg of the trip from Chattanooga to Whitwell Middle School.
B & B Crane Company donated the services of an operator along with a crane capable of lifting 600,000 pounds to set the car on the tracks at the Memorial site. The tracks, which the car sits on, were donated by CSX Railroad Company. These tracks were made in Tennessee in 1943. Members of the community beautified the area surrounding the car.
The Story Continues: Children’s Holocaust Memorial
Through the efforts of the students, staff, and community of Whitwell, and interested people and groups from all over the world, The Children’s Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell Middle School was dedicated November 9, 2001. Approximately one thousand people were in attendance at the dedication. The dedication was an awesome celebration of what a committed group of people can accomplish.
Today, the students serve as docents for the Memorial conducting tours, leading people in learning activities, and responding to inquires about the project. The work of the students is the subject of a documentary titled “Paper Clips”, presented by One Clip At A Time HMA, is a production of the Johnson Group, in association with Miramax Films and Ergo Entertainment.
The Museum Collection
And that’s not all. A room just inside the school entrance has been turned into a museum, with thousands of exhibit items, from photos, to books, to various items of Judaica, to an Ark housing a Torah Scroll, to artifacts of the concentration camps.
Clockwise from Upper Left: Ark with Torah Scroll, Various Artifacts, Museum Library, Volumes of Letters from Visitors and Survivors.
Visit the Whitwell Holocaust Museum Home Page
Purchase the Paper Clips Documentary
The Children’s Holocaust Museum on Trip Advisor
Currently, all of the author’s royalties from the sale of “Pavel’s Violin” go to support The Whitwell Children’s Holocaust Memorial.