Friday, May 12, 2006

Students Holocaust History Project Makes International News

A student project that began by collecting paperclips to memorialize the millions lost during the Nazi genocide against European Jews, has garnered international attention, and inspired a documentary film.



Students confront Holocaust

By Erin Elaine Mosely
Montgomery Advertiser

WHITWELL, TENN -- One clip at a time.

That's how students at Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tenn., started collecting paperclips for a project that became an international phenomenon.

Students collected paperclips to represent every Jewish life lost during the Holocaust. The school eventually collected more than 29 million of them. The project evolved into a permanent student-run memorial to Holocaust victims called the Children's Holocaust Memorial.

Filmmakers turned their project into an award-winning documentary.

On Monday, about 80 sixth-graders and adults from Wetumpka Intermediate School traveled to Tennessee to tour the memorial at Whitwell Middle. Students in some sixth-grade classes have been studying the Whitwell student project in their own classrooms.

Journalists Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder Hildebrand secured an authentic German railcar used to transport Jews to Nazi death camps. The car now houses the Holocaust Memorial and 11 million paperclips -- one for every life lost during the Holocaust.

"I think it's really interesting they have some of the (death) camp stuff," said 11-year-old Carter Young.

As the popularity of the Tennessee students' project grew, people began to send personal items in addition to paperclips. Some sent letters, others sent pictures and someone even sent a War World II military medal.

Whitwell teachers Sandra Roberts and David Smith started the project in 1998.

"This project is so powerful," Roberts said. "It has a life of its own. It draws you in every day. Every day I learn something new."

Rebecca Guthrie, 12, took pictures in the railcar as Whitwell eighth-graders Faith Vaughn and Amber Holloway, both 14, gave visitors facts about the memorial and the Holocaust.

"I think it's a great way to remember all the people who died in the Holocaust," Rebecca said. "It was just amazing. It was just a great experience. I think they should do it every year."

The memorial includes the railcar, 18 butterflies for the 18th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, chai -- which means life -- and a monument with two children playing with a butterfly atop a base with a paperclip.

"Sometimes we have survivors come in and they tell us stories of how they escaped the rail car," Faith said. "It's really, really sad. I break down and cry, even though I don't like crying in public."

Tyler Wright, 13, Tevin Hobson, 12, and Mieah Johnson, 12, touched and pored over some of the 11 million paper clips stored in the rail car.

"It was just interesting learning about Jews and Germans," Tyler said. "The train was interesting. It's a real freight car they got from Germany."

Austen Parker, 12, said he was stunned by "the memorial, how many paperclips they got in there and how many people they got in those cattle cars."

Mieah agreed.

"I thought it was neat how many they had in there and how they got a (cattle car) back from Germany and took the time to do that," she said.

Hannah Miller,12, described the memorial as honorable, and Lauren Davis, 11, said Holocaust victims would appreciate something in their honor if they lived to see it.

Aspen Coleman, and Kelsey Blazer, both 12, jotted down their thoughts after looking at pictures of Jewish life during the Holocaust.

Lynn Ritvo, former principal at Wetumpka Intermediate School, organized and planned the trip, and the Jewish Federation donated money toward the trip, said assistant principal Rashawn Causey.

"The major thing is about tolerance and diversity," said Wetumpka Intermediate teacher Jo Ann Wilson. "In Wetumpka, we have the opportunity to see diversity, but maybe not Jewish. They'll look back and go, 'Wow! I realize what they were trying to do.'"