One afternoon in 1998, Linda Hooper had been sitting in her office when a student came to visit her.
“’You know, I don’t get six million,’” Hooper recalled the student saying.
Along with other teachers, Hooper, then principal of Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tennessee had helped institute a Holocaust education class. Although the students were interested in learning more, they had a difficult time comprehending the sheer number of Holocaust victims.
“You have to understand that only 1,700 people live in Whitwell,” said Hooper. “And there’s only about 6.2 million who live in the whole state.”
After some research, the students discovered that Norwegians had worn paper clips on their lapels as a sign of resistance against Nazi occupations during World War II. With Hooper’s approval, the school began collecting paper clips to help students better understand the magnitude of the Holocaust.
And with that, the Paper Clips Project officially began.
Hooper, who now serves as the mayor of Whitwell, will be visiting Congregation Shalom of Fox Point on Sunday, April 30 to speak about her experiences with the Paper Clips Project. The event is a collaboration between the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC) and Congregation Shalom.
“This is our third annual Holocaust speaker event,” said Kari Altman, who serves on the boards of both the HERC and Congregation Shalom. “We are very proud of this program, and very proud that it’s our third event.”
Part of what Hooper plans to share with her speech, “The Power of One,” is the inspiration behind the project, which was motivated by the lack of discussion of diversity in the small, all-white town.
“I began to look around for something that would help our kids understand that we’re not all white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, but we are all God’s children,” Hooper said. “We need to respect that and we need to learn what happens when we don’t respect that, when we don’t appreciate people of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures.”
The Whitwell Middle School students collected paper clips themselves, but also set up a website asking others to send in clips and messages explaining how they felt about the Holocaust. Not long after, the school was flooded with paper clips and letters from all over the world. The final count revealed a staggering collection of 30 million paper clips.
News of the project spread nationally and internationally, reaching others who wanted to contribute. Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, both White House correspondents for German newspapers, decided to help the students create a Holocaust memorial by donating a German rail car that had been used to transport prisoners during World War II. Filled with 11 million paper clips, the rail car is now part of the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, which sits in front of Whitwell Middle School.
In addition to the railcar, Schroeder and Schroeder-Hildebrand penned a book about the Paper Clips Project and memorial, titled “Six Million Paper Clips: The Making Of A Children’s Holocaust Memorial.” And, in 2004, the documentary “Paper Clips” was released, spreading the story of Whitwell even further.
Today, students at Whitwell Middle School still learn about the Holocaust, and still receive paper clips and letters in the mail. Although the stream of paper clips has receded a bit, both Hooper and Altman recognize the need to keep this project and projects like it alive.
“I think we are kind of in a stasis of hate,” Hooper said. “We all have some common ground that we share and we need to emphasize that. It only takes one person to do one thing to make an improvement in one area.”
Altman reiterated Hooper’s sentiment, encouraging people to attend the event and reflect on how the project is still inspirational, even 20 years later.
“Today more than ever it is essential to educate about tolerance, acceptance, and respect for all people,” Altman said. “This project in which these middle school students participated has done just that.”
The HERC and Congregation Shalom Speaker Series with Linda Hooper is open to the public and will take place Sunday, April 30 from 2 to 3:15 p.m. at Congregation Shalom. Copies of Schroeder and Schroeder-Hildebrand’s book, “Six Million Paper Clips: The Making Of A Children’s Holocaust Memorial,” will be available for sale at the event. Those who are interested in watching the “Paper Clips” documentary before the speaker series are invited to attend a free showing at Congregation Shalom on Tuesday, April 25 at 7 p.m.
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How to go
What: Linda Hooper, former principal of Whitwell Middle School in Whitwell, Tennessee, to speak.
When: Sunday, April 30, 2 p.m.
Where: Congregation Shalom, 7630 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Fox Point. 414-352-9288.
Cost: Free and open to the public.