Friday, July 25, 2008

THE WHITWELL MEMORIAL

“I’m going to pray daily that this will never happen again,” Sister Miriam said. She’s the Sister at St. Mary’s, Sewanee who makes rosaries “with prayer,” and I’m sure she’ll keep her promise to pray daily that the atrocities of the Holocaust of World War II won’t ever occur again. We were standing in the hot July sun, looking at the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, a German rail car that was used to take victims to concentration and death camps during WWII. The car was transported from Germany to Whitwell, TN Middle School for a memorial that was part of the Paper Clip Project launched in 1998 by Principal Linda Hooper. The old rail car houses 11 million paper clips (and other documents related to the Holocaust), one for each victim of the Holocaust. Eighteen beautiful butterflies inlaid with stained glass decorate the ground beside the car and signify hope for new life in the world –and a dedication to a life of compassion and understanding for other nations and cultures in the world.

I was glad to be standing in the park with four Sisters and a friend as the scene is profoundly moving. It was good to be among those who pray for the betterment of life and peace in the world. Although steps have not been put back in place because the railroad car has just been moved to the site of the new state-of-the-art Whitwell Middle School, two of the Sisters climbed up into the car to read the moving quotes by theologians and philosophers placed on the walls. While we stood there, Principal Hooper came out to bring us brochures about this project that she launched to teach students the value of tolerating different cultures. In 1998, she sent David Smith, 8th grade History teacher and Assistant Principal to a teaching course in Chattanooga, and he was joined by Language Arts teacher Sandra Roberts in teaching a group of students about the Holocaust. “We use a word to describe the initiation and involvement in this project,” Principal Hooper said. “It’s a Yiddish word, ‘beshert,’ which means ‘it was meant to be.’ Indeed, no one would guess that a project of such range and depth was a usual kind of class project at a small rural school in the Cumberland Valley of middle Tennessee.

The study about toleration of a different culture began in earnest when a student suggested that the group at Whitwell Middle School collect a paper clip for each victim of the Holocaust. The paper clip was a Norwegian symbol used by Europeans who expressed solidarity with the suffering of the Jews by wearing a paper clip during the Holocaust. In 1998, the students set up a web page asking for help in collecting the clips and encouraged people to share their feelings about the Holocaust. Today, they have collected 30,000 letters and documents, have become the subject of a movie entitled “Paper Clips,” collected over 30 million people clips from 50 U.S. states and 50 countries of the world, and have been visited by many survivors of the Holocaust. When the rail car is put back in place, it will include a suitcase sent from a middle school in Germany with tags which are notes of apology to Anne Frank. The principal of the German middle school is the father of a young German composer who wrote a piece of music called “Whitwell bells” when the Children’s Holocaust Memorial was dedicated.

Two White House correspondents for German newspapers, Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder Hildebrand, purchased a rail car (using their own and other donations from German citizens) used to transport prisoners during WWII that they found in Poland, and shipped it to Whitwell for the Paper Clip Project. The small rail car, 773 meters in length, 2.40 meters in height, and 3.00 meters in width, transported 75 to 150 Jews per trip to the camps, and we were shocked when we looked inside at the cramped space that held them – it was a “standing room only” experience within the “cattle car.” The Whitwell Middle School Memorial signifies to the school, to the community of Whitwell, and to the world that there will always be a need for perseverance, empathy, tolerance, and understanding for other cultures.

Coincidentally, Principal Hooper knew the name of the book that contained the poem I mentioned in the preceding blog. It’s entitled I NEVER SAW ANOTHER BUTTERFLY. She emphasized that the car is no longer a symbol of death but one of new life. If you haven’t seen “Paper Clips,” you can rent it from any video store. I’m fortunate to live only 45 minutes away from this memorial that the Whitwell Middle School Holocaust group says should remind us we change the world, one class at a time, and can really make a difference wherever we are.

For those of you who read my blogs regularly, I’ll be on vacation in the Smokies for a week.
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