Sometimes amazing things happen in the most unlikely of places.
Nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the southern parts of the United States still have a bad reputation in other parts of the country. Tennessee in particular is often viewed as a backward, ignorant hotbed of racism. The fact that the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee might go a long way toward explaining why it is perceived as such, but judging a whole state by one part of one tiny community makes no more sense than saying a whole group of people are inferior because of the color of their skin or their religion.
There is another tiny community in Tennessee, however, that is far more deserving of attention than Giles County. This little town near Chattanooga took a class project and turned it into something so much larger than the sum of its parts.
And it has millions of parts.
Whitwell middle school students, along with their principal and two teachers, began a multicultural assignment in 1998 that changed the life of every person involved and continues to affect people from far outside Whitwell’s township. What started out as a way to teach rural middle class white children about other cultures became a community-wide effort which spawned a website, a book, a documentary, and haunting memorial on the grounds of the school.
Unable to comprehend or explain what 6 million anything looked like, the educators and children came up with the idea of paper clips as a way to put the number into perspective. They wrote letters to celebrities and word eventually traveled all over the world, with paperclips pouring back to Whitwell’s school in response.
Holocaust survivors from around the country have visited the tiny museum, and shared their heartbreaking personal survival stories with the adults and children of Whitwell, Tennessee. A local artist was commissioned to create 18 butterflies around the memorial in honor of a poem written by a young boy in a concentration camp. In Hebrew the number 18 stands for “life” and the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, dedicated in the late fall of 2001, is about remembering, but also about hope.
The memorial is located in a 1917 German rail car that was once used to carry Jewish and other prisoners into the various concentration camps, quite often packed so tightly together that they couldn’t move. Inside the car are 11 million paper clips, representing the 6 million Jews and 5 million gays, Catholics, and others who died at the hands of the Nazis. Also inside is a suitcase filled with tiny letters of apology to Anne Frank from German middle school students, each attached with a paper clip.