A Six-Year Story of Friendship in the Mountains of Tennessee

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A selection of the 11 million paper clips housed in the Children’s Holocaust Memorial in Whitwell, Tenn.

The first of two parts

WHITWELL, TENN. — It’s hard to look at an ordinary paper clip and assign any kind of symbolism to it.

But for students here and a visiting delegation from Philadelphia, a paper clip is more than just a mere office supply.

In 1998, Whitwell Middle School’s then-principal, Linda Hooper, asked Sandra Roberts, the language arts teacher at the time, and then-assistant principal and history teacher David Smith to introduce an after-school class to teach eighth-grade students about the Holocaust.

The mostly white and Christian students in the two-stoplight town struggled to visualize the sheer number of Jews who died and, in response, embarked on a mission of collecting 6 million paper clips (worn by Norwegians as a sign of resistance during World War II) to represent the victims.

The project grew as it gained international attention, and the students reached their goal of 6 million — then exceeded it by more than 30 million.

In 2001, a dedication ceremony marked the opening of the local Children’s Holocaust Memorial, housed in a German rail car. The rail car, once used to deport Jews to concentration camps, now holds 11 million paper clips, representing the 6 million Jews plus other populations who died in the Holocaust, scattered among other artifacts people had sent in.

Surrounding the rail car are sculptures and stained glass tiles of butterflies, representing the children of Terezin as well as a Christian symbol of renewal. Inside, above the displays, are plaques engraved with quotes from Elie Wiesel and others.

Another 11 million paper clips are housed in a monument honoring the children of the Holocaust. The rest are kept in various places in the school.

An Unexpected Friendship

Just before the 10th anniversary of the rail car dedication, Norman Einhorn, director of member engagement at Har Zion Temple, watched Paper Clips — the 2004 documentary about the school and its story — as part of a curriculum on Holocaust education. When his children were at Camp Ramah a few months later, he got an email that Roberts and students from the Paper Clips Project were coming to speak with the campers.

“It hit me like, ‘Wow, you can get people from the movie to come talk, that would be so cool,’” he recalled. “Then we can really bring it to life and it doesn’t just have to be a movie.”

He called Roberts and introduced himself with an unorthodox, “I don’t even know you, but I love you.”

When she didn’t hang up, they set a date in November 2011 to bring her to Har Zion, figuring it would be a one-time speaker event where they show the movie, have Roberts speak and that would be it.

That was not the case.

“She captivated all of us in a way that none of us expected,” Einhorn said. “We were all crying. And I got up on the bimah and I said, ‘Read my lips … We are coming to visit you. We can’t let this go as a one-off program; it’s too important.’ And she said, ‘You don’t scare me.’”

In 2012, a busload of eighth-graders, each accompanied by a parent, went off to Whitwell.

On April 30, the Philly Friends of Paper Clips — a busload of eighth-graders, parents and clergy from Har Zion Temple, Beth Am Israel, Beth David Congregation, Adath Israel and Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El — headed to Whitwell for the sixth time.

“To do the same trip six years and have a full bus is not an accident,” Einhorn noted.

“When we started, this was not our goal,” Roberts said to the group. “Six years ago, we did not plan this. But let me tell you, it’s the highlight of our life. As long as you want — whoever’s coming, our doors are always open to you.”

Starting with Social Action

The group was greeted by a welcoming committee of Whitwell students holding decorated signs with the Philadelphia students’ and clergy’s names on them. They paired off for lunch, and the school cafeteria buzzed with excited chatter as the students traded hobbies, interests and social media handles.

“The relationship that we’ve built for the last six years has been incredible,” Whitwell Middle School Principal Kim Headrick said. “It just gives our kids a chance to meet people that they normally wouldn’t get to meet.”

She hoped the trip would continue to build those relationships as it’s beneficial for the students — on both sides.

“It’s important to know that there is a world outside of our small community, and that other people do worship differently; other people are different and that’s OK,” she said. “We want that message of acceptance and tolerance to be continued and to be carried on for many generations.”

The memorial has served as an educational tool for the Whitwell students, who are trained to give tours, as well as a destination for people to visit.

“It has impacted this town in ways that no one would have ever imagined,” Headrick said. “We have people from Canada, we have people from all over the United States, all over the world. And just meeting those people and understanding or trying to understand how much that memorial means to them, that teaches us because as Christians, it’s hard for us to understand how something as the memorial has such an impact.”

After lunch, the paired students headed to Save-A-Lot, the only supermarket, to shop for food items to donate to the local food bank. (“Are they having a sale?” one customer wondered, bewildered by the sudden crowd.)

“I had been to several Holocaust museums, I had seen the [Paper Clips] movie, but nothing really prepared me for what it meant to be at a Holocaust museum here,” noted Rabbi Marc Israel of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El as he entered the supermarket.

“In rural America, where sometimes you fall into stereotypes of what people are like, to see the impact that the museum had on the town and on the people here was really just incredibly inspiring.”

This was his second time in Whitwell, the first with his whole family. He also was involved when a group of Whitwell students came to Philly in 2013, hosted by area families.

His first trip gave him “a lot of hope for our country,” he said, “because it is a reminder that when we give people the chance to interact with one another, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Jews from the Northeast or Evangelical Christians in rural Tennessee, we can relate to one another as people.”

Outside the supermarket, Whitwell High School students Lyndie Alexander, 17, and Hadee Hedrick, 15, helped pack the shopping bags into a truck.

Alexander, who joined in the 2013 trip to Philly, likes to stay involved because of the relationships.

“The key thing in all this is our bond,” she said. “When you see all that love, it makes you want to be a part of that and I feel like that’s why I still do it.”

“I like learning about different cultures,” Hedrick added. “I volunteered to be a tour guide, and it was my favorite. … I don’t like the history behind it, but I liked learning about the history behind it.”

After a candle-lighting ceremony in which Beth Am Israel’s Rabbi David Ackerman imparted the appropriate message of “love thy neighbor as yourself,” the interfaith mission continued with a rather spirited service at the Whitwell Church of God, one of many area churches.

A Bat Mitzvah in Whitwell

After dinner at the church on the evening of April 30, the students joined together for a party at the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga. But it was no ordinary party: It was Rani Bleznak’s Bat Mitzvah party.

Complete with the usual trappings — the hora, light-up accessories, endearing dad speeches, a dizzying game of Coke and Pepsi that paired the Whitwell and Philly kids together — the party was a preview of a symbolic next morning.

As clouds and rain cleared way to bright sunshine on the morning of May 1, Rani Bleznak became a Bat Mitzvah before her peers, family and Whitwell students with Beth David’s Cantor Lauren Levy by her side. Standing in front of the rail car, she chanted from a Torah from a Lithuanian community in Johannesburg in the 1800s that was donated to Whitwell in 2007.  

Whitwell students sported navy and orange socks emblazoned with basketballs, Rani’s name and the date. Some even surprised her during the ceremony to sing “Oseh Shalom,” which Einhorn had secretly taught them via FaceTime for weeks.

The setting made it more meaningful, said Rani, an eighth-grader at the Baldwin School, sporting a gold necklace with a paper clip on it from a friend who went on a past trip.

“It taught me how to embrace differences,” she said, “because in Tennessee everyone was so different. They were a different crowd of people, and rather than — as I said in my speech — putting that down, we all brought each other up with that.”

As her parents, Veenita and Danny Bleznak, reflected afterward, it was an opportunity to provide a meaningful service for both sides.

The family has a history of unique Bat Mitzvahs. Tenth-grader Simi Bleznak had her Bat Mitzvah in Israel.

“Being a multicultural family, it was really important … for both of our girls to draw connections to other places, to different people,” said Danny Bleznak. “We thought … what a great cross-educational experience for both the Philly kids and the Whitwell kids to be able to experience a Bat Mitzvah and for Rani to be able to be in a community that’s never seen something like that and present that to them. So it was really something very special.”

Veenita Bleznak, whose family is Indian, said having the Bat Mitzvah in Whitwell was also a way of spreading the message of openness.

“The memorial lives on through the children,” she added. “They’re the ones spreading these messages, and we were watching that embodiment right in front of our eyes. These kids, by being educated in something completely alien to them, had opened their minds and opened their hearts and today, that’s what this Bat Mitzvah was.”

The rail car, Danny Bleznak added, was an emotional and symbolic backdrop for the service.

“There was something about seeing the ark in the rail car that struck me,” he said. “To have, at least in this instance, the symbol of it change to a symbol of hope was really powerful.”

The party, while fun and overflowing with a tasty dessert bar, was also a meaningful component where it might not be as much at home.

With both Bat Mitzvahs, “we wanted it to be more about the ceremony than the party, because I feel like there’s so many at home that the kids can become desensitized to it,” Danny Bleznak said. “One of the things that struck me was that the party, interestingly enough, was so great because their kids hadn’t experienced [a Bat Mitzvah] before. They had never done the hora before. So they embraced it in a way that our kids take for granted at home a lot.”

“And it brought our kids out,” Veenita Bleznak added.

“It brought our kids out because they had something to show, and it was just great to see,” Danny Bleznak said in agreement. “So we wanted them to have something they could look back on and we wanted Rani to be able remember this — the moment, the ceremony.”

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