News & Politics

“Can You Feel the Souls?”

How a Children's Memorial of 11 Million Paper Clips Came to Touch Many Lives

FOR 50 YEARS, GEORGE JACOBS TRIED NOT TO THINK about Malka, the girl he left behind.

Three years ago, at the family Passover Seder in Potomac, Jacobs's son-in-law Bobby Gordon asked him to read from a book about how Jews in Nazi concentration camps had celebrated the holiday. Gordon then asked Jacobs about his World War II experiences. Memories of Malka came flooding back.

It was May 18, 1945. The war in Europe had just ended. Lieutenant Jacobs, a 21-year-old navigator on B-17s, was in England waiting to be reassigned to the Pacific. To get in his flight hours, he and his crew flew VIPs and volunteers around Europe.

That morning, Jacobs signed on for a flight to Linz, Austria. The plane would stop in Paris to pick up French doctors and volunteers. After a return trip to Paris, Jacobs and his crew would get to spend a weekend there.

What Jacobs didn't know was that the doctors' destination was outside of Linz–Mauthausen, the last concentration camp liberated by the Allies.

Jacobs was Jewish by birth but not very observant. The Air Force had given every Jewish airman a small plastic mezuzah to wear on his lapel, but Jacobs rarely wore his.

"I just happened to put it on that day," he says.

When the visitors arrived at Mauthausen, they got a tour of the camp. As they went through the medical-aid station, Jacobs stopped at a bed. A thin woman with big, dark eyes was lying there. She looked to be about his age.

She saw the mezuzah he wore and asked him in Yiddish, "Are you an American? Are you Jewish?" Then she leaned to the side to kiss the mezuzah.

He held her hands. He gave her some juice. But he couldn't stay. He had to catch up with his group.

Before Jacobs left the camp that day, he went back to see the young woman. Her bed was empty. In the few hours since he had seen her, she had died. That's when he learned that her name was Malka.

George Jacobs had never told his family or friends about Mauthausen. The memory was so painful that he buried it.

He was still thinking about it the next morning when he picked up the Christian Science Monitor and read about children in Whitwell, Tennessee–a town on the edge of Appalachia–who were studying the Holocaust in school. They were trying to collect 6 million paper clips to help them understand the Nazi massacre of the Jews.

According to the story, Linda Hooper, principal of Whitwell Middle School, said that the paper clips would be turned into a memorial–"a final resting place for those who have nobody to remember them."

"Linda Hooper spoke to my heart," Jacobs says. He realized there was something he could do for Malka.

SHEILA LEVINE, A ROCKVILLE HEAD Start teacher, heard about the paper clips from her rabbi at a Passover service.

"I sent them four for my four grandparents, one for a half-brother–they all died in the Holocaust," Levine says. "I sent them a contribution for my parents, who survived."

Her mother had been liberated from Auschwitz. Her father had survived several camps and ended up in Mauthausen. When the camp was liberated, he was in the medical unit, sick with typhoid fever.

Levine was touched that children recognized the importance of remembering those who had died. But for her the project had added meaning:

"I am a teacher, and I just had to support this teacher who was teaching tolerance."

WHY WOULD KIDS from a small town in Tennessee–a town without any Jews–decide to create the world's only children's Holocaust memorial? How would the world respond? This is the story that Bob Johnson and his group of McLean filmmakers tell in the documentary film Paper Clips.

Miramax–the movie studio that produced Shakespeare in Love and Life Is Beautiful–bought the film and arranged for a showing in New York in August so that Paper Clips would qualify for the 2004 Academy Awards. The documentary will have its premiere at the Boston Jewish Film Festival this month. It will be shown in Whitwell on November 5. Miramax is working on theatrical release.

"This is an extraordinary story of tolerance," says Matthew Hiltzik, senior vice president of Miramax Films. "The children of Whitwell have taught us all a great lesson."

"Would you let your child take this class?"

In 1998 Linda Hooper and a group of parents and teachers in Whitwell sat down to talk about what kids were learning in school–and what they weren't. There was one obvious gap: In a town that's almost exclusively white and Protestant, Whitwell kids knew very little about other people. Hooper decided to send David Smith–history teacher, football coach, and assistant principal–to a workshop in Chattanooga on enrichment programs.

When Smith saw a presentation on the Holocaust, he knew that was what he wanted to explore.

"I could teach about hatred and what it cost," he says.

When Smith brought the idea to Linda Hooper, he warned that studying the Holocaust would expose the children to disturbing images and stories. They agreed that the project would be a voluntary, once-a-week after-school activity for eighth-graders only. The first year, parents were required to attend with their kids.

That August, Hooper and Smith held a meeting with parents. Most knew little about the Holocaust. But they trusted Hooper, who had grown up in Whitwell, raised her children there, and taught many of the adults in the room.

One father asked Hooper, "Would you let your child take this class?"

"Yes," she said.

THE FIRST CLASS BEGAN ON A WED-nesday afternoon that October. Sandy Roberts, the eighth-grade English teacher, was chosen to lead the project with David Smith. Smith and Roberts designed the course to celebrate life–survival in the face of overwhelming odds.

Roberts's life also was woven into the fabric of the town. She too had grown up in Whitwell and had been taught by Linda Hooper.

She began by reading aloud to the kids from Elie Wiesel's Night, Anne Frank's diary, and history books. Her students were having a hard time understanding the magnitude of the Holocaust. They never had seen 6 million of anything. The kids decided to collect 6 million paper clips.

Why paper clips?

"You needed to make it something you can walk past, something you can touch," Roberts explains. Given the size of the school building, Hooper told the class that they had to pick something small.

The kids searched the Internet for inspiration and discovered that during World War II, Norwegians had worn paper clips on their collars to show their solidarity with Jews and their opposition to Nazism and anti-Semitism.

Another reason was what paper clips symbolized–holding things together.

"Another Jewish story–spare us"

The eighth-graders in Whitwell asked everybody they knew for paper clips. They sent letters to celebrities and created a Web site. They had a plan–to create a sculpture: In the center would be a black swastika.

"We hope to get a local cast-iron manufacturer to make a mold for us and have the paper clips melted and poured to form the sculpture," the Web site said.

At first they received lots of clips. Many came with letters from people with Holocaust stories to tell.

Every Wednesday after class, the kids would count the arriving paper clips and read the letters aloud. By the end of the school year, they'd received 100,000 clips.

Then the momentum died. The project might have died, too, were it not for Lena Gitter, a Washington Holocaust survivor, and her friends Peter Schroeder, 61, and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, 60, journalists who cover the White House for a German-language newspaper group.

The Schroeders have lived in Washington for 23 years, mostly covering US politics. They often have written about the Holocaust.

"We are the last generation who will know this," Dagmar says. "We have a certain responsibility as Germans."

When the Schroeders moved to Washington in 1980, Dagmar met Lena Gitter through the local German club. Peter was so intrigued by her life that he wrote a book about her.

Gitter, a protégé of children's-education pioneer Maria Montessori, had fled Austria in 1938 just ahead of the Nazi army. She continued her work and set up schools for black kids in the South as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program.

Gitter was past 90 and still consulting on the Montessori teaching method when she and Peter Schroeder independently discovered the Whitwell Web site. They talked about it at lunch at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"You have to do something about this," Gitter told the Schroeders.

They called Whitwell and interviewed Hooper, Smith, Roberts, and some of the kids. Then they wrote a story for their Austrian and German newspapers.

AT FIRST THEIR EDITORS IN GERMANY were reluctant. At the time, newspapers were filled with stories about demands for reparations from German companies that had used slave labor during World War II.

Peter recalls their reaction: "Another Jewish story–spare us."

But the story ran, and paper clips began descending on the Schroeders in Washington and the eighth-graders in Whitwell.

In November 1999, Dagmar and Peter drove to Whitwell. Neither the town nor the Schroeders knew what to expect.

"How do you address a White House correspondent?" one of the kids asked Sandy Roberts.

The school turned out to meet the Schroeders. Peter and Dagmar saw the displays outside Roberts's classroom. On one wall, the children had pasted faces and put real barbed wire in front of them.

The Schroeders joined the children in counting paper clips and reading letters aloud.

The Schroeders were so affected that they wrote a book, The Paperclip Project, that was published in Germany. Before long, clips, letters, poems, and works of art poured into Whitwell.

The Schroeders went on a book tour in Germany in October 2000, inspiring another wave of clips. A Washington Post reporter went to Tennessee to write a story about it. Other journalists and TV cameras descended on the town.

RACHEL PINCHOT READ THE POST story in her Silver Spring kitchen. She gave it to her husband, Ari, a film producer who had worked with Aviva Kempner on her award-winning documentary about baseball great Hank Greenberg.

This would make a great movie, the Pinchots thought. Ari was working for the Johnson Group, a McLean documentary-film and entertainment company. When he brought the idea to his colleagues, company president Bob Johnson was skeptical.

The paper-clip project was a sweet story, Johnson said, but it sounded more like a segment on a television magazine show than a movie. What's more, the idea broke Johnson's cardinal rule: Never commit your own money to a film without knowing where you can sell it.

Joe Fab, Johnson's vice president and longtime collaborator, liked the idea. Fab and Johnson had worked together on and off since 1977. One of those joint efforts was a film for the Holocaust Museum. The two had, at different times, worked at DC's Arena Stage with founder Zelda Fichandler.

Fab convinced Johnson to let him do some work on the paper-clip project. He had learned that four Holocaust survivors from Long Island were planning a pilgrimage to Whitwell to meet the kids. Fab decided that he and director Elliot Berlin would go to New York, pick up a crew, and film interviews with the survivors. Ari Pinchot would contact Linda Hooper.

They had to move fast, Fab thought. The paper-clip project was into its third year, and the children were closing in on their goal of 6 million. **

ON THE SURFACE, BOB JOHNSON and Joe Fab are unlikely collaborators. Both have strong backgrounds in theater and film, but they have very different styles.

Johnson is a gregarious Texan, a broadcaster turned producer and director known for his patriotic works. In 1970 he produced Proudly They Came, a documentary about the Independence Day celebration on the Mall. It was narrated by Jimmy Stewart.

Johnson later produced the Great American Family Awards at the Reagan White House. He now does broadcast documentaries, industrial films, and TV sports. He also produces the annual Christmas-tree lighting and the opening ceremonies of the Pageant of Peace on the Mall.

It was the late Washington Post theater critic Richard Coe who convinced Johnson to leave Texas for Washington. At the time, Johnson was public-relations director for the Dallas Theater Center.

"Zelda needs someone like you at Arena Stage," Coe said.

Johnson joined Arena in 1962 but didn't stay long. After a year he started producing television shows and documentaries.

Fab is quieter, more deliberative. He grew up in Montgomery County, moved to Atlanta to manage a theater, returned in 1977, and branched out into writing and production. His credits include writing the PBS documentary A Cry in the Woods, about the battle between logging interests and environmentalists, and creating scores of videos, events, and theatrical productions for Arena Stage, Source Theatre, Ford's, and the Kennedy Center.

THE PAPER-CLIP PROJECT WAS MOV-ing even faster than Joe Fab knew. Dagmar and Peter Schroeder had gone back to Whitwell in April 2001. Barrels of clips filled every free space at the school. To keep up with the count, kids came in at 5:30 AM and stayed late to open mail and read letters while they counted. They each wore a paper clip on their shirt.

Sandy Roberts's family had been enlisted to help count. "We thought they'd get one or two barrels of clips," Roberts's father, Kay, recalls. "But they just kept coming." The family grandmother was then 90, and she was counting, too.

The after-school Holocaust program had become so popular that kids had to write essays to compete for the 25 seats in the class. As part of the curriculum, the children had learned about the crematoriums at Auschwitz. They could no longer imagine melting the clips to create a sculpture. In their minds, each clip had come to represent a human life.

One night at dinner, Linda Hooper told the Schroeders that she had another idea for a memorial. She wanted to get an old German railcar and fill it with the paper clips. The Nazis had used the railroads as the main transport to the death camps.

Hooper wanted to turn a symbol of evil into a symbol of hope. Peter and Dagmar were planning a trip to Germany.

Peter said. "We will bring you a cattle car."

"I'll eat your heart for breakfast"

Back in Washington, Ari Pinchot called Hooper. She didn't call him back. Most of the reporters who had covered the paper-clip story had portrayed Whitwell as a kind of present-day Dogpatch. Principal Hooper was not pleased.

Whitwell fits many stereotypes about small Southern towns. There seem to be as many trailers as houses. To some, a trailer is a symbol of low status; in Whitwell, it's a step up from a mining-company shack.

It is easy to paint Whitwell by the numbers. There is no downtown–just four banks and two gas stations on Route 28. There are 1,600 people and 11 churches.

The town's fortunes rose and fell with the coal mines on Whitwell Mountain. After World War II, 4,000 miners worked in the mountains overlooking Sequatchie Valley. In 1997, the last mine closed.

Mining jobs were dangerous, but they paid well. Now more than half of the 425 students at Whitwell Middle School qualify for free lunch. When the mining companies left, anyone without deep ties to the valley left, too. Whitwell Middle School has only five students who aren't white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

The media also played up Whitwell's environs. Forty miles away is the Rhea County Courthouse, where a teacher was convicted for teaching evolution in the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial." A hundred miles from Whitwell, in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan was born.

Press reports touted the Tennessee miracle–imagine something noble coming out of a town like this! Whitwellians were described as backward, ignorant, inbred.

FAB AND BERLIN FLEW TO CEDAR-hurst, Long Island, to meet the four Holocaust survivors bound for Whitwell. The local Jewish Community Center has a survivors group that gets together.

Berlin directed Fab's interviews with Bernie Igielski and Rachel Gleitman. Igielski talked about the games he played in Auschwitz with his friends–they picked lice off one another and counted them to see who had the most. Gleitman told how her life was saved when the gas chamber malfunctioned.

Four days later, Fab flew to Chattanooga with Berlin and associate producer Jessica Davenport. Then they rented a car and drove 24 miles over the mountains to Whitwell. They almost missed it on the first pass. Joe Fab was looking for a village like Andy Griffith's Mayberry.

ARI PINCHOT HAD CALLED HOOPER twice a day for two weeks. Finally she called back. She talked to Pinchot and then Fab. She told Fab she had checked with Jerry Wolkoff from the YMHA on Long Island.

"Jerry says you're okay," she said. "But I don't know Jerry, either. If I'm going to make up my mind, I want to meet you."

If Fab passed muster, she would go with him to convince the Marion County school board to approve filming at the school. Fab, Berlin, and Davenport found Whitwell Middle School and went to the principal's office. Hooper told them to have a seat, made them wait a while, and then looked up from her work.

Linda Hooper is a tall, imposing woman with short white hair. She is protective of her children. When she feels they're being threatened, she sounds like Clint Eastwood with a drawl.

"If you make these children sound like ignorant hillbillies," she told Fab and company, "I'll eat your heart for breakfast."

After 15 minutes, Hooper agreed to take Fab to a meeting of the Marion County school board that night.

Hooper's approval was enough to convince the board. The first filming would be at the First United Methodist Church the next evening. The New York visitors were scheduled to speak.

It seemed as though the whole town had crowded into the church. The camera caught the tears on the cheeks of adults and children as the survivors told their stories.

The next day the survivors went to Whitwell Middle School and spoke to the students. Bernie Igielski broke down, but he explained that he cries only from happiness now: "Since I came to this country in 1948, I am a free man."

Eighth-grader Casey Condra was sitting in that class. "I've always said the Pledge of Allegiance without thinking about it," he said. "But now I'm going to think about it with new respect."

JOE FAB AND ELLIOT Berlin returned with footage that convinced Bob Johnson: He realized that this was a different kind of Holocaust story.

"We aren't documenting a tragedy," Johnson says. "We're documenting how to prevent it in the future."

Pinchot sent a seven-minute clip of the footage to his New York contacts. They got it to Miramax communi-cations director Matthew Hiltzik.

"Harvey's got to see this," Hiltzik said. He meant Harvey Weinstein, one of the two brothers who run Miramax. Weinstein loved what he saw. Miramax would be interested in optioning Paper Clips for theatrical distribution and home video.

"We'll get you a railcar"

Meanwhile, the Schroeders were facing roadblocks in Germany. The state-owned German Railroad Company first claimed that cars from the World War II era no longer existed. When the Schroeders persisted, they were told the rail system needed the cars for "our own purposes." For three months, the journalists crisscrossed Europe looking for a railcar.

Three days before they were due to return to Washington, they got a lead. A friend's son-in-law knew someone in Robel, north of Berlin, who had a railroad museum. He had a cattle car that had been used to take prisoners to the camps. It was built in 1917 and was found after the war near the town of Chelmno, Poland. The Schroeders could come see it, the museum owner said, but it wasn't for sale.

Peter and Dagmar went to the museum the next day.

"Do you want us to tell our 5 to 6 million readers that you wouldn't help these children?" Peter asked the owner.

He sold them the cattle car for $6,000.

The German military smiled on the project. It draped the car with signs about the memorial and put it on a flatcar with a special locomotive to wend through the German countryside at 30 miles an hour to the port of Cuxhaven. From there a Norwegian freighter carried the car to Baltimore.

The railcar arrived in Baltimore on September 9, 2001, and was refused entry. Customs officials were stymied–there is no category for historic wooden railcars in the department rule book.

Then the Department of Agriculture stepped in. The car was made of untreated wood and might be a carrier of un-American insects.

The Schroeders had lived in Washington long enough to know how things worked. They called a rabbi friend in New Jersey. The rabbi called his uncle, Representative Benjamin Gilman. Gilman called the Schroeders and said, "Check your fax machine in five minutes."

Five minutes later, a letter from the Secretary of Agriculture told the Schroeders that the car had been inspected and approved to enter the country.

ELLIOT BERLIN AND CAMERAMAN Michael Marton went to Baltimore to film the car starting on its journey south on the CSX railroad. They set up below a trestle. When Berlin wasn't sure they'd gotten the shot they needed, they called the train's engineer and asked him to back the train over the trestle and cross the bridge again.

The next day, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For the children in Whitwell, the tragedy had special meaning.

They had believed that mass murder fueled by hatred couldn't happen again. But it had.

In the weeks of shock and sadness that followed September 11, the German cattle car rode the rails to Chattanooga. From there it was hoisted onto a truck for the final leg of the journey. It arrived in Whitwell on October 5. A crane lifted the car off the truck and onto 50 feet of vintage track, forged in 1943 in Tennessee.

As the children looked on, Sandy Roberts and David Smith touched the car's faded wooden walls. Smith pulled the iron bar up, opened the door, and climbed inside. Hooper walked around the perimeter. They could not believe that they and the children had actually done it.

For the next month, volunteers worked on the railcar and the little park around it. The memorial was dedicated on November 9–the 63rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the "night of broken glass," when Nazi-inspired gangs smashed windows and looted Jewish homes, stores, and synagogues in Austria and Germany.

The whole town came to the dedication. Dignitaries spoke. Dagmar and Peter Schroeder and kids from the eighth-grade class talked. A Hebrew-school class from Atlanta came to say Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer.

For Joe Fab, the lingering images are not the official moments. What stay with him are the quiet moments early that day, when Linda Hooper stood alone looking at the memorial her children had made–and then proceeded to sweep the path around it.

Fab sees the faces of the children singing "We Shall Never Forget"–children who had never met a Jew or heard about the Holocaust before they started the project.

IT TOOK ANOTHER YEAR BEFORE THE Johnson Group knew if Miramax would go ahead with Paper Clips. They sent the final version to New York in June 2003. For two months they heard nothing. Then Matt Hiltzik called Ari Pinchot. It was a go.

Joe Fab and Elliot Berlin went to the postproduction house in Arlington and added the New York skyline with the Miramax logo as the opening shot of Paper Clips.

Butterflies and paper clips

I went with the Johnson Group crew on one of its last shoots in Whitwell. I had promised to report on what I saw to George Jacobs, among others.

While visiting Whitwell Middle School, I opened one of the dozens of white loose-leaf binders that hold the letters. As I thumbed through the pages, I saw a name I recognized: Margit Meissner, longtime coordinator of the Montgomery County Board of Education's transition program for students with disabilities. She had sent a paper clip and a contribution to Whitwell.

Meissner's family had escaped Czechoslovakia in time to avoid the Holocaust. But many others she knew were not so lucky.

Before she retired, Meissner and I had worked together as volunteers for the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, a community program for people with disabilities. Of all the books and letters I might have read, I stumbled upon hers. There's a Yiddish expression for what I felt at that moment–bashert, fated to be.

I went outside to stand in front of the Children's Holocaust Memorial. I had seen the pictures but was still stunned by the sight. Whitwell Middle School looks almost like the concentration camps in pictures. The old brick building has a chimney that towers over the railcar. On the side of the building, a freestanding concrete arch leads to a field beyond. If you squint, you can imagine the words ARBEIT MACHT FREI on the archway leading into Auschwitz.

Eighteen butterflies sculptured of twisted copper are embedded in concrete around the railcar, standing guard.

Why butterflies? The children were inspired by a poem by Pavel Friedmann, a child who lived in Terezin concentration camp in 1942:

"The Butterfly"

The last, the very last,

So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.

Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing against a white stone . . .

Such, such a yellow is carried lightly 'way up high.

It went away I'm sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye.

For seven weeks I've lived in here,

Penned up inside this ghetto.

But I have found what I love here.

The dandelions call to me

And the white chestnut branches in the court.

Only I never saw another


That butterfly was the last one.

Butterflies don't live in here,

in the ghetto.

Why 18 butterflies? In Hebrew, the number 18 is chai, or life, Linda Hooper explained.

On my last morning in Whitwell, Hooper took me inside the cattle car. Eleven million paper clips rest behind Plexiglas walls–for the 6 million Jews and 5 million others killed in the Holocaust.

The Schroeders' book rests on top of one pile of paper clips. On the other side of the car, a battered suitcase sits on top of more clips. A class of German schoolchildren filled the suitcase with letters of apology to Anne Frank. Then they sent it to Whitwell to be part of the Children's Holocaust Memorial.

I found myself shivering in the hot, airless car. I was born in 1943. If my grandparents hadn't fled Austria and Romania, would there be a paper clip for me?

Linda Hooper pulled out tissues–one for her, one for me. She said she still cries every time she goes inside the cattle car.

"Can you feel the souls?" she asked.

Yes, I could and I hoped one of them was Malka.