Harold Sampson drove 800 miles in 2005, from Philadelphia to Whitwell, Tenn., for one simple reason.
Sampson had attended a screening a year earlier of the documentary Paper Clips at Broomall’s Congregation Beth El Ner Tamid; the film tells of middle school students in Whitwell who set out to collect 6 million of the ordinary office supplies. Their teacher hoped the undertaking would illuminate what the Holocaust meant — what that enormous number actually looked like.
“I saw the film, and the tears came rolling down my face,” Sampson, a 73-year-old accountant, explained. “I said, ‘I have to go to Whitwell and thank these people for what they’re doing.’ ”
No Jewish community exists in Whitwell, an old coal mining town, population 1,600. Students decided to start the collection after learning that the paper clip had been invented by a Jew and that Norwegians had pinned them to their lapels during World War II as a way of expressing opposition to the Nazis.
People from around the world heard about the project and sent in more than 30 million paper clips, 11 million of which now fill a German rail car donated to the Tennessee school by Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder Hildebrand, White House correspondents for German newspapers. The box car was used to transport prisoners to camps. Yet another 11 million clips fill a children’s memorial in Whitwell. Sampson was far from alone in being inspired by the idea.
“I’m a big believer in bashert — that at the right moment an opportunity was going to come into my life and take what existed prior to that to a whole new level, and this movie was that thing,” Sampson said.
The lifelong Philadelphian, who grew up in South Philly and now lives in Broomall, decided he wanted to transport the spirit of the Tennessee memorial elsewhere. He first traveled to Oslo, Norway, and spoke with the city’s mayor about what the students in Tennessee had accomplished. Sampson said the mayor had not heard about the memorial, and Sampson presented him with the book Six Million Paper Clips: The Making of a Children’s Holocaust Memorial.
“He treated me like I was a dignitary,” Sampson said.
Then about two years ago, Sampson met with a Jewish architect in Philadelphia and shared his idea: to build a paper clip sculpture that would stand on the lawn in front of Congregation Beth El Ner Tamid.
Sampson had already had one large paper clip fabricated in a Philadelphia shop. He hadn’t decided what to do with it, and after the owner of the business died in 2007, the six-foot-tall sculpture was accidentally thrown away. Sampson was not discouraged and has provided all the funding for a second try.
The designer of the sculpture is Robert Cassway, of Cassway-Albert, a Philadelphia architectural firm. In planning the seven-foot-tall polished stainless-steel paper clip sculpture, ensuring its durability was paramount. Cassway said he chose the steel because “it’s a material that suggests everlastingness.” And it needs no maintenance.
“I wanted to build something so in a thousand years from now, when some archaeologist uncovers this thing, they are going to think that this was a place of importance,” said Cassway, who remarked that Sampson gave him creative freedom.
The foundation below the sculpture will be made from Jerusalem stone, which is expected to arrive in Broomall next week. The stone will also be used for a nearby bench where viewers can sit. Some of the stone will be broken up into small pieces and given to congregants.
Sampson wants the sculpture to stand as a beautiful piece of art and to stir excitement among fellow Jews. He also donated money for his congregation’s education program, and the religious school will be named after Sampson’s father, William Sampson.
“One of the things that exists today is people don’t have the feeling I do of, ‘How lucky I am to be born Jewish.’ I want to inspire Jewish people to be proud of their heritage,” said Sampson, who was honored in October by Federation Early Learning Services for his support of Jewish, children’s and secular organizations.
Sampson also discussed his idea with Rabbi Barry Blum, who organized the screening of the documentary eight years ago during Selichot services. The accountant wants the sculpture, which will officially be unveiled in the spring, to bring together four communities: Oslo, Whitwell, Jerusalem — by virtue of the stone — and Philadelphia, like the four corners of a tallit during the Shema prayer.
“I hope that people don’t just drive by and say, ‘Oh that is the synagogue with a paper clip,’ ” Blum said. “I want people to stop and think about the deeper meaning of it, which is to be supportive of each other and to stand up for what you feel is right.”