In a small town in eastern Tennessee, a town without Jews, teenagers are almost halfway through a project that will give them a visual handle on the enormity of the Shoah.
Eighth-grade students at the 425-student Whitwell Middle School -- whose student body is all white except for five Black children -- are amassing 6 million paper clips to represent the 6 million Jews who died during the Holocaust.
They've been collecting paper clips since September 1999, and, thanks to expanded publicity, donations have accelerated during the past six months, according to Whitwell Vice Principal David Smith, one of the project's sponsors.
Their total as of April 24 was almost 4 million, and the students are hoping to reach their goal by Dec. 31 of this year.
The project was born during a teaching unit on the Holocaust, a topic chosen specifically to raise student sensitivity to diversity and prejudice. When students were told that 6 million Jews were murdered, they couldn't believe that that many people were killed and no one did anything to stop it. Smith and colleague Sandi Roberts decided to show the children how many 6 million of something is.
They chose paper clips after discovering that during World War II, Norwegians wore paper clips on their clothes to show their opposition to Nazism and anti-Semitism.
The clips are stored in a 55-gallon drum at the back of Roberts' classroom. Students manage the project, keeping track of the tally, writing thank-you notes and filing letters that arrive with donations.
They've come to see the clips as individuals who died during the Shoah. Roberts told Education World magazine that one girl came to her and held up a single paper clip, asking, "What if this were the person who would've found a cure for cancer?"
When the tally reaches 6 million, the paper clips will be formed into a sculpture. Van Nuys jeweler Martin Gruber reportedly is working on a design.
The plan originally was for the paper clips to be melted down for the sculpture, but students pointed out that this would be like burning the bodies of the victims all over again.
Rabbi Leon Kahane of Temple Rodeph Shalom in El Segundo, himself a survivor of the Shoah, said he is asking his congregants to collect paper clips for the rest of the year to be sent to Tennessee.
The project has attracted what Smith terms an overwhelming response, including donations and letters from survivors and relatives of victims. Next month, a student from the Whitwell school will travel to Austria to attend the Youth Meeting on the Holocaust.
"Our students, who had never seen a Jewish person before this project, have seen an outpouring of love and compassion from people around the world," Smith told the Journal. "[They] now understand the oppression the Jews endured and the true horror in which the Jewish people had to live and die."