As we approached Chattanooga, Veronica’s memory vault popped open.
“Isn’t that train car full of paper clips around here?”
My slightly less-than-razor-sharp recall had no idea what she was talking about.
“Remember the movie we saw a few years ago about the kids who collected paper clips to visualize the victims of the holocaust?
I think that happened right near here.”
A flicker of recognition was ignited. It was coming back to me.
Back in 1998, teachers noticed that students couldn’t fully grasp the enormity of the number six million when discussing the Jewish victims of the holocaust.
Then the students came up with an idea.
After learning about the mandatory stars that Jews were required to wear on their clothing, and how some people showed solidarity with the Jewish people’s plight by wearing paper clips, they set out to collect six million paper clips.
The documentary had really moved us and we couldn’t pass up the chance to see the result of these children’s efforts.
So we broke out the maps and found our way to 1 Butterfly Lane and the Whitwell Middle School.
The train car, which was actually used to carry prisoners to concentration camps, has become home to the millions of collected clips.
Once we climbed aboard we discovered just how many millions.
Standing silently alone inside the car, absorbing the gravity of this powerful, emotional monument, we pushed the button for the audio presentation.
The narration took us through the story from the very beginning.
At first the students brought paper clips from home or asked family and friends to contribute, then the idea began to spread.
They set up a web page asking for help, and for people to share their thoughts and feelings about the Holocaust.
A few weeks later the first letter arrived, then more, and by the end of that school year the class had 700,000 paper clips.
Within a couple years not only had they reached their goal of six million, they had passed it.
Along the way incredible, compelling stories were coming in with the clips from all over the world.
Enter two reporters from Germany, Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand, whose involment took the project a quantum leap forward.
They found the children’s story so compelling that they located a boxcar at a museum in Röbel and raised enough through donations to buy it for the school.
A few years later they wrote a book titled Six Million Paper Clips: The Making of A Children’s Holocaust Memorial.
Several companies, on both sides of the Atlantic, pitched in to move the car to the spot where it stands today and the scale of the project was changed forever.
The car was filled with not six million, but eleven million paper clips.
One to commemorate each of the Jewish victims, as well as all of the other casualties of the Holocaust. The multitude of clips are held in two large cases on each end of the car. Displayed among the clips are letters and other mementos that have been sent along over the years.
Even after the Children’s Holocaust Memorial was dedicated the clips kept coming in, enough that another eleven million are enshrined in a steel monument, designed by Charles McFarland, that stands alongside the railcar.
But there are still more, over thirty million total to date, with more arriving every day.
We did our best to absorb the numbers, and realized how successful the memorial was at illustrating the gravity of the horrible events.
Imagining each clip as a human life was astounding and shocking in the reality they brought to light.
The weight of the suffering of the people carried to their untimely deaths in this very car was crushing.
Veronica stood beside me, openly sobbing.
When the narration was finished we stood in silence again, not ready to leave the hallowed place just yet.
Finally we made our way down and lingered for a few minutes in the garden area around the old boxcar.
It was hard to leave, we both stopped several times to look back as we walked away.
The project accomplished much more than its original goals.
It took on a life of its own and grew far beyond making a number from history tangible to an imaginative group of young people.
That number became real lives.
Lives that we are compelled to look back on, to remember, to never forget.