Holocaust Museums: Jerusalem and Whitwell, Tennessee

Sixty years after the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, a new Holocaust history museum opened in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem on March 15, 2005. Heads of state and cabinet ministers from over 40 countries — mostly from Europe — gathered at the museum that was created and built over a ten years period.

Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister, told the 1,500 guests and dignitaries, “When you leave this museum, you see the sky of Jerusalem. I know how a Jew feels when he emerges from these depths and breathes the air of Jerusalem. He feels at home. He feels protected. He feels the terrible difference between living in one’s own country which can provide protection and standing alone, utterly defenseless, confronting a beast in human form.”

The new museum, designed by the Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, is housed in a concrete building that cuts across the Mount of Remembrance. Largely underground, it tries to tell the story of the six million Jewish dead — half of whom are still un-named— through the diaries, photographs, experiences and testimonials of about one hundred individuals. Behind the dais with the dignitaries on dedication day were projected images, the faces of Jewish children who had perished. The museum employs modern film techniques and recreation of reality through artifacts from the Nazi era of deportation to the death camps.

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and author of Night and other books about the Holocaust, has said that it is impossible to tell six million stories. “One can tell one story.” Wiesel has also reached the supremely ironic conclusion, “The Jews of Europe lacked imagination. They couldn’t imagine that anyone would do what the Nazis did to them.” The aim at Yad Vashem is to tell one hundred stories of the Jews of Europe who were exterminated — and through them to transmit the authentic horror of the Holocaust.

Another Holocaust museum has been created thousands of miles from Jerusalem in the tiny town of Whitwell Tennessee, (population 1,600) nestled in a valley between the mountains of Appalachia. This most unlikely of sites grew out of a remarkable project started in the public schools in l998 when the principal and two eighth grade teachers wanted to teach their students about diversity, prejudice and tolerance. In this all white and all Christian community, they chose the Holocaust as the subject for the project.

The powerful documentary movie, “Paper Clips” follows the classes as they decide to collect six million paper clips to symbolize the Jews who were killed by the Nazis. Paper clips had been invented in Norway and they learned that citizens of Norway wore paper clips in their lapels during the Nazi era to show their defiance. The students’ task was daunting but they approached it in many ways. Studying and learning what had happened in Europe was the first step. Almost all were unfamiliar with the Holocaust when they began. Thus the plan was “simple but profound” as the principal described it. Their aim was “to honor every soul” who had died.

As they sought ways to publicize their project, hundreds of thousands of paper clips started to arrive. There were also letters and memoirs from survivors. And photographs. A feature on NBC news spread the story across the United States and overseas. Every set of paper clips that came in was recorded as to sender. The numbers grew as paper clips flowed into the Whitwell post office. An old battered suitcase came from Germany with paper clips inside, each with a note in German, as to the person they represented. A translator was found to read each note in English.

A group of survivors from Long Island traveled to Whitwell to meet the students and to tell them about the death camps — and the families they had lost. This experience was very emotional for the students, their teachers and the Whitwell citizens who attended an open meeting. The film recorded the evening and the reactions of the students to listening to the survivors. For the students, meeting these men and women put a human face on the millions of paper clips flooding into their school.

Over a four year period as the project continued, 25 million paper clips were collected — and recorded. 25,000 personal letters, memoirs and photographs were received and catalogued. The cap stone of the project was the transporting of one of the rail cars from the Nazi era that had been used to take Jews to the death camps. An American couple of German heritage, the Shroeders, had become interested in the project and went to Germany where they found the car and supervised the shipping to Whitwell by ocean freighter and flat bed truck.

The railway car stands today as the central focus of the Whitwell Holocaust Museum. Inside the rough wooden walls, preserved with the narrow slits showing glimpses of light, is the space that once held up to one hundred people. The car now holds exhibits of the letters, the photographs, the suitcase from Germany and eleven million paper clips in containers— six million for the Jews who died and five million for Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners and others who also died as victims of the Nazi regime.

Classes visit Whitwell from all over the region. Eighth grade students act as guides inside the railway car museum. They show the exhibits and the paper clips — and tell the story of the Holocaust to the visitors. The paper clips project stands as a tribute to the educators and their students who dedicated themselves to understanding how the evil of the Holocaust could have happened. The Whitwell Museum is a permanent monument to their inspiring endeavor.

3 thoughts on “Holocaust Museums: Jerusalem and Whitwell, Tennessee

  1. A very interesting, valuable column about the Holocaust and the importance of civic participation and civic and political education.

  2. This story filled me with an overwhelming sadness. At the same time I was deeply touched by that Little town in Tennessee and the major contribution they made to understanding the horror of the Holocaust.

  3. Very inspiring piece Mom on the Holocaust and the power of people caring with the Paper clip story. Thanks for writing this
    Another brilliant piece.

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