When their plane touched down in Tennessee, Emma Dorsch, Sarah Scheinmann, Rebecca Shaid and Maddison Barrack — four high school students from the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in suburban Philadelphia — did not realize that they were about to embark on a life-changing experience. Representing Barrack’s Holocaust Education and Reflection (HEAR) Club, the girls would be attending a dedication at Whitwell Middle School in rural Tennessee, home of the famous Paper Clips Project”.
It has now been almost 20 years since Whitwell students launched the project, with the goal of collecting six million paper clips to help them visualize the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. (Paper clips were chosen because they were worn by the people of Norway during World War II as a symbol of protest against the Nazis.) Since then, Whitwell Middle School — which is only a couple hours’ drive from the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan — has become the site of a children’s Holocaust memorial, the focus of international acclaim and the subject of a documentary film.
Although there is no Jewish population in Whitwell, the Barrack students were greeted by their young hosts with Kosher snacks acquired from Nashville. Later, Sarah Scheinmann captured this spirit of hospitality when she said, “Despite my nerves in the beginning, after arriving, I realized instantly how it was everyone’s number-one priority to make us feel comfortable, at home and, even more than that, special.”
The girls had originally come to Whitwell to attend the dedication of a butterfly statue in memory of the children of Theresienstadt, a ghetto/concentration camp that 15,000 children had moved through during the Holocaust, almost all of whom ultimately perished. The HEAR Club had organized a related project at Barrack last year, in which students stenciled butterflies on the walls in school stairwells to commemorate the children who died in the Holocaust. (The butterfly theme stems from a poem written by a young prisoner at Theresienstadt, which appeared in a collection called “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”) As a result, a Barrack parent, Michelle Barrack, suggested that HEAR Club adviser Susan Schwartz take some of her students to the dedication in Tennessee.
During their first day at Whitwell, the Barrack students visited the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, including the actual German rail car that the school had acquired. Having been exposed to the Holocaust throughout their lives, the girls were overwhelmed by the dedication and sensitivity to this history evinced by the Whitwell students, who did not share their heritage. So moved by what they saw, they could not simply attend the dedication of the butterfly statue — they needed to be part of it, and volunteered to speak during the ceremony before a crowd of 425 people.
Although their word choice and delivery styles varied, the four girls shared the same message. Emma Dorsch said she cried because she “was witnessing children learning about the Holocaust for the first time.” Sarah Scheinmann marveled at the fact that “without having any ties to what happened to the Jewish people during the Holocaust, the kids spent their time and effort making a difference in their town.” Maddison Barrack underscored this theme with a focus on the adults in Whitwell when she said, “So for this little town in Tennessee, with only two traffic lights, to want to not only learn more about the Holocaust, but to then teach it to your children leaves me speechless.” Finally, for Rebecca Shaid, the visit to Whitwell Middle School strengthened her hope in the future of the Jewish people:
It astonishes me — how could these people, whose only connection to the Holocaust is what they learn about in class, care so much? When I saw these kids, I immediately had hope that despite the hatred and anti-Semitism in the world today, if people in the town of Whitwell, Tennessee, could care so much, others could, and would.
Although the girls have since returned to Philadelphia, the two schools, Barrack and Whitwell, plan to continue their relationship by collaborating throughout the year on a joint project, according to Schwartz, who is a Spanish teacher at Barrack, as well as the HEAR Club adviser. Schwartz explained that Whitwell Middle School had received a donation of letters written by prisoners in Auschwitz and that students from the two schools would work together virtually to do research on these letters. The goal of the project is for the students to learn more about the senders and intended recipients of the letters in order to put faces to the names.
But for Schwartz, there is another goal: to maintain the connection between students who come from two very different worlds. In fact, she hopes that this project will serve as a “model of collaboration” that other schools can use to connect groups of students from different backgrounds and geographic areas.