From Whitwell, TN to Broomall, PA: Moving a Legacy
In 1998, a middle school principal in Whitwell, Tennessee started a Holocaust education program to teach children about tolerance. The children had difficulty comprehending the massive scale of the Holocaust, so they searched for something to represent the lives that were exterminated. When the children discovered that thousands of Norwegians wore paperclips on their lapels during World War II as a silent protest against Nazi occupation, they decided to collect 6 million paper clips to represent the estimated 6 million Jews that were killed. At first, the project went slowly. Students created a website and sent letters to friends, family, and celebrities. In 2001, a reporter wrote an article about the project in the Washington Post, and everything changed.
Suddenly, millions of paper clips started arriving at the school, often accompanied by stories or a dedication to a certain person who had died during the Holocaust. An authentic German rail car used to transport Jews to concentration camps was donated to the school and in 2001, became part of the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, located on school grounds, surrounded by a small garden and filled with (to date) 20 million paper clips. The documentary Paper Clips was released three years later to describe the project and highlight what was done. And so, a project initially designed to teach tolerance to middle school students in a tiny Appalachian town, home of the Ku Klux Klan where not a single Jew lived, became a catalyst that changed lives within and beyond the town.
Enter Harold Sampson, a Jewish accountant in Broomall, PA. When Sampson saw the documentary at his synagogue, he was moved to tears and decided to go to Whitwell to thank those responsible. He and his wife made the 800-mile trip, bearing a gift with notes written by students from their synagogue’s Hebrew school, describing how the movie had moved them. “They gave us a personal tour of the school and the rail car,” said Sampson. “It was an emotional, change-of-life moment for me, and I realized I had a project for life.”
The Sampsons went to Oslo, Norway, where members of the Norwegian resistance wore paperclips during Nazi occupation, and presented the city’s mayor with a book describing the Whitwell program. “I became a link between paperclip #1, which people wore as an act of defiance, to paperclip #2, which taught tolerance. That allowed me to build paperclip #3,” which Sampson hopes will invite people to change their mindset and reevaluate priorities. Sampson hired a contractor to build the paperclip, and an architect to design the display. The 9-ft paperclip is mounted in front of his Broomall synagogue on two tons of Jerusalem stone, imported from Israel. Sampson completely funded the project.
This week, we are moving the Sampsons to an apartment in a nearby retirement community. We are moving his belongs, but his legacy — a message of tolerance and good deeds — is permanent. And so it is with many of our clients. Their legacy is not in their things, but in the lives they have led.