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Teaching Project Fastens Students' Attention on the Holocaust

December 6, 2007 By:
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Jenna Steinbrink had her copy of "Six Millions Paper Clips: The Making of a Children's Holocaust Memorial" signed by teacher Sandra Roberts. Photo by Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg
Sandra Roberts, the teacher behind a middle-school Holocaust-awareness project in rural Tennessee that garnered international attention and praise, recently paid a visit to Gratz College in Melrose Park, where she spoke on the importance of teaching tolerance and cultural diversity to children.

Roberts -- "the teacher who started it all," as the advertisement for the program described her -- was joined by two current Tennessee students now involved in the project, cousins Allie and Karrie Caldwell, both 13.

Roberts recounted the true story that has become a familiar one to the many who've seen the 2004 documentary, "Paper Clips."

In 1998, students at Whitwell Middle School were studying the Holocaust and the importance of respecting other cultures. In a town where there are few minorities and no Jews, the students had never met anyone who was different than themselves -- Caucasian and Christian.

"Everyone looks like them, thinks like them, talks like them," admitted Roberts. "That's not reality. How can you prepare them for anything when they've never had any experience?"

The students, wishing to better understand the enormity of the number 6 million -- the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust -- decided to collect paper clips, which had been used in Norway as a silent symbol of resistance to the Nazi regime.

"I did not envision this," attested Roberts. "I wanted to teach 25 children about tolerance and what happens when you hate."

The paper clips the students collected are now part of the Children's Holocaust Memorial, which is situated in an old German rail car that took quite some time to find and bring to the school grounds in Whitwell.

The story of the project was also told in the 2004 book, Six Million Paper Clips: The Making of a Children's Holocaust Memorial, written by two German journalists, Peter W. Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, who befriended the students.

More than 150 people attended Roberts' recent presentation and screening of the film at Gratz. The event was co-sponsored by the Friends of the Tuttleman Library at Gratz and B'nai B'rith International.

As for the paper clips, they still arrive at the Tennessee school every now and then. To date, the students have collected 33,652,000 of them.

Current students in the Paper Clips Project, like the Caldwell cousins, give tours of the memorial and teach about the Holocaust to students from around the country who visit each year. As the motto of the project goes, they are attempting to change the world, "one class at a time."

Inspiration to Others

The Paper Clips Project has prompted at least one local person to devise her own attempt at fostering tolerance.

Jenna Steinbrink, 12, of Ambler, plans to collect 6 million pennies as part of her Bat Mitzvah project. Over the last three to four months, she's collected more than 160,000. To keep track of the donations, she has opened a bank account and a post-office box.

Steinbrink's awareness drive is called "Millions to Remember: We Can Change the World Together." She knows that she's set "a very large goal" for herself, but remains committed to seeing it through, even if it takes beyond her Bat Mitzvah date to reach her goal.

With each donation to Millions to Remember, Steinbrink said that she hopes people take a moment and think about the life a penny represents. She also plans to speak about her efforts in the local community.

"Tolerance is a huge part of our lives, and we need to work together," she said.

The Sandy Run Middle School seventh-grader, whose Bat Mitzvah will be held in September 2008 at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, plans to donate the money to the branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York.

Steinbrink has been distributing collection cans to friends, at her synagogue and at local businesses in the community. She reported that her friends come up to her in Hebrew school with bags filled with pennies.

Steinbrink met with Roberts and her two students prior to the lecture, when she was presented with a Paper Clips Project shirt.

Roberts also answered Steinbrink's questions about how the undertaking came about, and discussed problems that she and the students encountered along the way. Steinbrink also sought advice from Roberts about how to keep her plan going.

"It's celebrating the fact that they lived," advised the teacher. "That's your drive. That's how you make your project successful."

Roberts pledged her full support for Millions to Remember -- and kept her word. At the end of the lecture, she asked Steinbrink to come to the front of the room and then explained the pre-teen's venture to those present. More than $110 was raised for Millions to Remember that very evening.

"This is something I believe in," declared Steinbrink. "One person can make a difference."

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