It all started in 1998, when an eighth-grader in Whitwell, Tennessee, asked teacher Sandra Roberts, “What does six million look like?”
Whitwell Middle School principal Linda Hooper had asked Ms. Roberts and associate principal David Smith to develop a Holocaust education class for an optional afterschool program. But the mostly white, Christian students struggled to grasp the hard-to-understand scale of the number six million — the number of Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
Guided by Ms. Roberts, the educators decided to collect six million paper clips, each one a tangible symbol of each soul who died. They chose the clips because some Norwegians wore them as a silent protest against Nazi occupation during World War II.
On Wednesday, May 4, at 7 p.m., the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah), Ms. Hooper will speak about the Paper Clips Project in a public lecture at Temple Avodat Shalom, 385 Howland Avenue in River Edge.
The project ultimately extended over several years and culminated in the collection of 30 million paper clips, which now are on display along with 50,000 donated documents and other artifacts in Whitwell Middle School’s Children’s Holocaust Memorial, housed inside a German railcar that was used to transport Jews to concentration camps.
Ms. Hooper also will speak at River Dell Middle School and Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County earlier on May 4, and she will make a presentation to the River Dell Interreligious Clergy Association.
“I have spoken to every type of group, from Muslim and Jewish schoolchildren to church groups and civic organizations across the United States and in Australia and South Africa,” as well as at Yad Vashem in Israel, Ms. Hooper said.
“It always impresses me that when people hear this story they hear it as people, not as different cultural groups. We have a strong tendency in our country to divide populations into Jewish, Anglo-Saxon, African-American, Buddhist, or whatever — but I find people respond basically the same everywhere,” she continued.
“The Paper Clip Project began with a group of children who learned about something that was foreign to them, in a community that had no experience of the Holocaust. The message these children are trying to give to the world is that we should look at each other as people who suffer and try to alleviate that suffering.”
A 2004 documentary, “Paper Clips,” captured how the Whitwell students responded to learning about the Holocaust and inspired people to send paper clips from all 50 U.S. states and from all corners of the world.
“I try to challenge people to do what we challenged our own community to do: Look around you and see what needs to be done in your community to make it better,” said Ms. Hooper, who retired from Whitwell Middle School in 2010. She is the volunteer coordinator of the Children’s Holocaust Memorial and does other charitable work with her husband, Edward.
“When we speak with school groups, especially middle- and high-school ages, they are particularly interested in following up with an activity. For instance, in Colorado one community started a tutoring program for students who did not have access to the best education. And we’ve had folks who challenged their group to do one mitzvah per person per month.”
Another outgrowth of the Paper Clips Project is the Chattanooga-based nonprofit organization One Clip at a Time, which offers an interactive service-learning program and accompanying educators’ kit designed to motivate and empower students in fifth grade and above to learn about the Holocaust and discover ways to make positive changes in their own classrooms and communities.
Rabbi Paul Jacobson of Temple Avodat Shalom said long-time synagogue member Phyllis Roth told him about hearing Ms. Hooper tell the story of the Paper Clips Project years ago.
“Realizing that Ms. Hooper’s message of changing the world and of making a positive difference is as timely today as it was when she created the Paper Clips Project, we decided it was crucial to bring Ms. Hooper to address our community directly,” he said.
“We are encountering so much prejudice, racism, anti-Semitism, and general distrust of and disgust towards people who are ‘different,’ people whom we perceive as ‘other.’ We hear such comments not only in our workplaces and our schools, but also in the media, and also throughout this year’s presidential campaign,” Rabbi Jacobson continued. “Something needs to be done to change the level of discourse, the nature of discussion, and the amount of awareness that we have regarding people we do not know.
“We believe sincerely that this is Ms. Hooper’s message, and the message of the work of her students in creating the Paper Clips Project. Her students had not known about the Holocaust, yet it was education and eyewitness accounts that opened their eyes to the horrible things that humans can do. Ms. Hooper will inspire us to think and to act differently.”
The talk at Temple Avodat Shalom is being co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, the Jewish Community Center of Paramus-Congregation Beth Tikvah, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, and the Glen Rock Jewish Center.
Ms. Hooper said that she sees her mission as “keeping people aware that hate-filled speeches occur all over the world, and genocide can happen anywhere. We have to involve our young people in activities that allow them to see how easily their actions could lead to another horror like the Holocaust.
“Things like this don’t start with big events but with putting people down and blaming different groups for this or that. Every day, we must be conscious of what we say and do.”