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Paper Clips wears its heart on its sleeve. And
on its chest and on its back and just about everywhere else a heart can be hung. As they studied the Holocaust, it was realized that the idea of six
million eradicated Jews was a number virtually impossible to grasp and a way was devised
to make that number real for the students. When they learned that during the war
Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels as a symbol of resistance against the Nazis,
they decided to collect six million paper clips. A letter writing campaign was conducted
and paper clips started to arrive, often accompanied by statements of support or
recollections of family lost in the camps.
In Whitwell, Tennessee, a small Appalachian town, two teachers, with
the support of their dedicated middle school principal, created a Holocaust project for
their students, intended as a lesson in tolerance through the study of one of history's
most grievous tragedies of intolerance. Whitwell, with a homogeneous population of white
Protestants, is noted to have no Jews, no Catholics, five Blacks, and one Hispanic among
its population of 1,600. Principal Hooper says, "When we come up against someone not
like us, we don't have a clue." And this, historically, is Bible-belt country, Ku
Klux Klan territory, near to where the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trials pitted modern
science against Christian mythology.
The project mushroomed when it was discovered by a couple, German
foreign correspondents in Washington, DC., whose support resulted in coverage in The
Washington Post and on NBC News. Within six weeks, the paper clip count reached 24
million and some 25,000 letters were received.
A group of holocaust survivors visited the town (well covered in the
film) and their tales of personal experiences added a crucial element of reality to the
understanding of the students and the town. A permanent exhibit of the project was set up
in an old German cattle car that had been used to transport Jews to the camps, now
imported all the way to Tennessee. And, to the special credit of this community (and a
testament to the lessons of tolerance learned), they decided to include not just six
million clips for the murdered Jews, but five million more in memory of the homosexuals,
gypsies, and Jehovah Witnesses who were victims of
the Nazis as well.
Paper Clips is a documentary of impeccable intentions about a
community filled with unimpeachably sincere and good-hearted citizens. The film tells its
story cogently and with taste. But it is so unrelievedly positive in its approach that it
weakens its own case.
Questions linger in the mind. Was there no one in Whitwell who opposed
the project or felt negatively about it? Hearing their thoughts might have put
the project in stronger perspective. Although there are occasional glimpses of Black
students on screen, they never get to speak. Wouldn't it have been interesting to hear how
they felt about the project? A comment by one of those well-known people (Mel
Gibson's father?) who deny the Holocaust even existed might have put the project in better
focus, given it a sharper profile.
Paper Clips is a worthwhile record of an admirable
undertaking, but a little less sentiment and a little more edge might have produced a
- Arthur Lazere