Singing in church choirs has given me many opportunities to travel and meet people of different races, colors and creeds.
As a member of the Notre Dame Glee Club, we once traveled by planes, trains, buses and boats to perform concerts in Western Europe. There’s nothing like traveling overseas to give you a new perspective of our own country. But the true value was meeting people with entirely different life experiences.
Sometimes we stayed in peoples’ homes, other times we met the locals after the concerts. We listened to their stories, enjoyed their customs and saw the world from a different point of view.
Their buildings were old, some still scarred by war. Their family histories were deep, some still scarred by oppression and conflict. Many do not enjoy the personal freedoms we take for granted. I could see the differences with my own eyes.
You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe. (John 20:29)
A memorable stop during this trip was at Dachau, the Nazi’s first concentration camp in Germany. Built to hold 5,000 individuals, Dachau’s barracks during the Holocaust once held more than 30,000 Jewish people. Many did not stay very long.
Today, the mechanical components of the genocide remain: the watch tower, the gas chambers, the crematorium. The old foundations of the barracks are now filled with glistening white rocks. Mass graves at Dachau are covered with flowers, memorials and reminders that we should “Never Forget.”
In an old photograph, my college roommate Jeff Rubenstein stands in front of a large plaque written in Hebrew. He said later that visiting Dachau, where so many Jewish people who shared his faith were indiscriminately murdered, made him both sad and angry.
I learned about different faiths because I was there. But for the students of Whitwell Middle School, an extraordinary program teaches them the lessons of tolerance and diversity, even if most of them never leave the hills of rural southeastern Tennessee.
Paper Clips is an award-winning documentary that describes how a school program reached around the world to touch countless communities, people of different faiths and even survivors of the Holocaust.
Principal Linda Hooper said they had a distinct need to teach their students about tolerance and diversity. “Our entire town is only 1,600 people. There are no Jewish people, no Catholics. The school has only five black students and one Hispanic student. (In 1998) we didn’t have a clue what different people were like,” she states.
Assistant principal David Smith and 8th grade teacher Sandra Roberts had a goal: “to teach the students what happens when intolerance reigns and prejudice goes unchecked.” They decided to teach the students about the Holocaust.
During their classroom discussions about the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, one of the students asked “what does six million look like?” They decided to collect six million of some object to better comprehend the number.
After searching for an object small enough to collect, they settled on a paper clip, which was used by Norwegians during World War II as a symbol of unity against Nazi Germany.
So began the campaign to collect six million paperclips, one for each of the victims.
But instead of placing a large order at Wal-Mart, the students wrote letters. They sent letters about their program and asked for a paper clip from famous individuals. They received letters and paper clips from Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and entertainers like Tom Hanks, Bill Cosby and Tom Bosley.
The next year, national journalists discovered the program and wrote articles for The Washington Post and the NBC Nightly News. Within the next six weeks, the school was inundated with millions of paper clips.
Most shipments included letters from Holocaust survivors, their family members, even the soldiers who liberated the camps at the end of the war. The authors praised the students for learning the valuable lessons of respect and tolerance. They were pleased to send a paper clip so that the memories of their loved ones could finally rest in peace at Whitwell. The program indeed changed the lives of many students and teachers.
The “Children’s Holocaust Memorial and Paper Clips Project” is open to the public. It is located behind Whitwell Middle School in an authentic German railway car used to transport the victims to the camps.
The lessons of tolerance and diversity are just as important today as any day. We should support efforts to stop the genocide in Darfur. We should celebrate our country’s diversity, not segregate people into separate camps.
Our leaders will do well to remember this lesson. If not, they should visit Whitwell Middle School and learn a few things.
Whether you believe by faith or learn by sight, the path to enlightenment is worth the journey. Our society needs tolerance and respect. The price of ignorance, intolerance and racism is way too high.
First published in the August 10, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio
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> Paper Clips DVD