A husband-and-wife team of German journalists, who reported on how students and teachers in rural Tennessee memorialized the Holocaust, recently recounted how their steadfast involvement wound up being more complicated than they'd imagined.
Peter W. Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand have each written several books and have served as foreign correspondents for German newspapers, but they may be best known for their role in the tale of Whitwell, Tenn., which was depicted in the 2004 documentary "Paper Clips."
Hoping to expose their students to diversity, as well as the dangers of intolerance, Whitwell's middle-school administrators and teachers decided to address what happened in the Holocaust. Unable to comprehend what 6 million represented, students decided they needed to collect 6 million of something to see what the number meant for themselves. They settled on paper clips, used in Norway as a symbol of resistance to the Nazis.
After three years, they'd collected more than 20 million.
The German couple — who spoke Oct. 24 at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington — helped publicize the students' efforts, and later searched throughout Germany and Belgium to find an authentic World War II-era rail car to serve as a permanent Holocaust memorial in the rural Tennessee town.
"We are gentiles. You want to ask: 'Why do you keep yourself busy with the Holocaust?' " posed Schroeder, who with his wife wrote the 2004 children's book Six Million Paper Clips: The Making of a Children's Holocaust Memorial.
"We were toddlers [at the time]; we are a little bit off the hook," added Schroeder. "We have no collective guilt, but we have a collective responsibility to make sure that this thing would really never happen again on German soil."
The Tennessee project started in 1999. Months later, the couple wrote a series of articles for German newspapers about the effort. Then, in 2000, they published a German-language book called Das Buroklammer-Projekt (The Paperclip Project).
Not long afterward, major media outlets like The Washington Post and NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw brought the effort national attention.
The recent synagogue program was sponsored by the Jeff Kedson Foundation and the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. Those groups have teamed up to donate copies of both the film and the children's book to all the school districts in Bucks, Montgomery and Delaware counties.
Phyllis and Len Kedson, who oversee the foundation named for their son, killed in a car accident, also brought the couple to the Colonial Middle School in Plymouth Meeting and the Delaware County Intermediate Unit, where they addressed students in several schools via video-conferencing.
"As journalists, we get cynical. You start to know only the bad. This prevents us from" that, explained Schroeder-Hildebrand, adding that during their very first meeting with Whitwell students, they decided that they needed to shelve their roles as journalists and get directly involved.
So the couple drove more than 2,000 miles through parts of Germany and Belgium in search of a rail car — after assuming they'd have the task completed in a matter of days — but kept coming up short. Eventually, they found one in a rail museum outside of Berlin, but were told it wasn't for sale.
Schroeder-Hildebrand said that she lectured the manager about the Holocaust and the need to make certain it never happened again. He agreed to sell them the antique piece for roughly $6,000.
After they'd solicited friends and family for help with the money, and then purchased the car, they had to figure out how to transport it from Germany to Tennessee. Needless to say, just to get it to a port involved some innovative engineering and help from a German rail company.
Among those who attended the program last week was Harold Sampson, who last year traveled to Whitwell in order to see the completed memorial for himself, and meet with students and teachers firsthand. Sampson, of Broomall, said that the project has succeeded in familiarizing them with people of other faiths and ethnic backgrounds.
"It's opened up a whole new horizon, and it has changed people — and you can't even measure something like that," he said.
Whitwell students now give tours of the memorial and educate about aspects of the Holocaust.
"As a teacher myself, I have so much respect for these teachers," said Anita Shmuckler, a Beth Am member who sits on the board at Gratz College. "The concept of 6 million is so overwhelming for a child. It's overwhelming for me."