The documentary Paper Clips (2004) is the most inspiring, heart-warming movie I have seen in recent years.
For those who think students are not learning anything significant, those who fret that nobody will remember the Holocaust when there are no more survivors, and for those who want to be inspired by the actions of the current college generation, have three words for you.
RENT THIS MOVIE!
If you watch this movie and are not moved, then call a cardiologist because I think your heart has stopped beating.
This documentary is, on the surface, about a school in Whitewell, Tennessee, population 1,500 with almost no racial diversity and no Jews. But it is really about so much more –- it is also about tolerance, civics, knowledge, and learning from history.
The idea is beautiful in its simplicity: Collect six million paper clips, one for each of the Jews killed in the Holocaust.
A student suggested collecting the paper clips would help everyone grasp just how big the number six million is. The paper clip is a meaningful choice because the Norwegians wore paper clips on lapels as a statement of solidarity with the victims of Hitler.
The collection of the paper clips picked up tremendous steam after news reports on the effort ran in The Washington Post, on NBC, and elsewhere.
Officials at the Post Office, in a cute segment, had to ask the school to pick its own mail because delivering so many paper clips was becoming too cumbersome.
As the school is shown passing the six million mark, I thought maybe it would instead shoot for 11 million, the total number of Holocaust victims when you factor in non-Jews killed because they were gay, gypsies, or had religious beliefs the Nazis wanted to exterminate.
While the school ultimately collected about 29 million paper clips from around the world, they put 11 million of them inside a rail car.
The train car was one actually used to take Jews to their death camps. The train car, today, sits outside the school and serves as both a museum and a memorial — with students serving as museum guides.
The teachers, like the students, reflect on their own experiences and openly share what they find. Teacher Linda Hooper says, “I have learned more from this project than I ever could have taught.”
Teacher David Smith said:
“I believe people from the north and the west, I believe when they look at children of the South, they think, ‘dumb little redneck children.’ They are stereotyped and that’s what we are trying to teach in this project. You can’t stereotype anyone because you yourself are stereotyped. I am stereotyped because I live in the South. I look at people who live in the North and I have a bad habit of doing it – I stereotype. And that is what we are trying to do – break those stereotypes.
The paper clip drive prompted incredibly moving, personal comments to the students in letters from survivors, not to mention actual visits. The most moving letter from a Holocaust survivor reads:
I witnessed what intolerance and indifference can lead to… The teaching of tolerance is alive and well and bears fruit. When I heard about your project, I cried. You are the testament that a new age has dawned: The age of responsibility and the age of kindness of the heart. You are living proof that each and every one of us can make a difference and do his part to shape a better world. When you ask the young and innocent, they will do the right thing. With tears in my eyes, I bow my head to you. Shalom.”
The movie reinforces a thesis I stated in a Blogcritics article: That it can be helpful to use items — be they paper clips or piles of shoes representing people murdered by the Nazis — to help people reflect on the enormity of the Holocaust.
The most compelling part of this story is not really the paper clips but the people –- the teachers, principal, students, and a pair of German reporters. These people work so hard to make sure that not only do students and others learn from the past, but that they can avoid repeating such heinous crimes in the future.