Paperclips and People

I was going to write something about being in love with J today. Or about how much I love being a mom. Or about our awesome vacation. Or about my best friend. Or about writing love stories. But I’m not. I’m writing about an old Netflix documentary. Here we go…

Several years ago, when we first got Netflix, I watched a documentary on streaming called Paper Clips.


If you’ve never seen this documentary, I highly recommend that you try and find it. Watching it is better than me talking about it here in this blog post. But I am going to talk about it a bit. It’s about a middle school class in Tennessee learning about the Holocaust. Their teacher wanted to do something tangible to really illustrate the enormity of the event and the tragedy and the human cost, so the kids (mostly white, Christian kids) would ‘get’ what happened in a demonstrative way. So they decided to collect 6 million of something to represent each of the 6 million Jewish lives taken in the Holocaust by the Nazis. (The documented number of total Holocaust victims is 17 million…6 million Jews and 11 million others, including disabled people, members of the LGBT+ community, non-white people, people who openly opposed and disagreed with Nazi policies and practices, and the faithful of other non-German sanctioned Christian sects and world religions…but this movie focused on the 6 million Jews). So they decided to collect paperclips, because they are small, and if they actually managed to get 6 million of them, they could probably find a place to house them in the school.

Knowing that each one of those paperclips represented a person…someone’s life that ended…really did make an impact, not only on the members of that class, but on the teachers, the entire school, the whole community. Celebrities sent in paper clips. They did get 6 million. They actually eventually collected more than the 17 million total victims of the Holocaust. And seeing how many *paperclips* that was moved people. When they connected that each one represented a PERSON…seeing all of those *paperclips* piled up and crammed into a small space and recognizing…acknowledging…accepting that those represented PEOPLE really showed those kids…those community members…everyone I think who watches this documentary something.

For me, personally, watching this movie, it struck me not only the waste and shame that goes with the death of so many people, the potential of so many unlived lives, but the one to one representation of paperclips to people made me think of the suffering before death too. Those paperclips were crowded. There were SO MANY paperclips. There were TOO MANY paperclips. The school faculty and administration wrote letters to obtain a special place to store them because they were taking up so much space in the school (and these were paperclips…imagine if they were really people…I did). They managed to get a German railway car; one the Nazis actually used to transport people…real people…to concentration camps, and filled it with the paperclips.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how that railway car was filled, over and over again, with people. Terrified people. Packed together so tightly people died in the rail cars from compression injuries and oxygen deprivation. Beyond standing room only. I thought about all of the collections of wedding rings and eye glasses and coats and shoes taken from people when they reached these concentration camps. I thought about how I’d feel if I were separated from The Boy; if I were separated from J; if I knew my brother, my best friend, my cousins, were suffering too, and there was nothing I could do about it because I couldn’t be with them. I couldn’t even sit down to put my head in my hands and cry about it. I thought about what the irrevocably traumatized Holocaust survivors looked like in the historical photos I’ve seen in my life, in high school AP History, in college Political Science classes, in my own independent research, in this very documentary about middle school children. Starving and sick and dirty and tired and afraid. They looked a whole lot like what the immigration holding facilities at the United States borders look like now. And the US border patrol agents are confiscating rosaries and medicine from asylum seekers…they’re separating children from their parents…they’re forcing these people into overcrowded, unsanitary spaces to be confined without an end to confinement in sight…just like Nazis crowded and confined and separated families and confiscated personal items from Jews and the other groups they deemed subhuman in the 1930s and 1940s.
I think about people…children…separated from their parents…with no soap and no blankets. I think about women and men in facilities where they’re boxed in so closely they can’t sit or lie down. Where there are 20-30+ people to a working toilet. Where they aren’t allowed to bathe. Where they don’t have access to medical help and have had medicine confiscated. Where they can’t relax enough to go to sleep. The constant anxiety and anguish they all must feel. The physical pain some if not most or maybe all of them must be in.

It really sounds to me like history is repeating itself, even after the hard work and creativity of these wonderful Tennessee teachers who came up with this idea and inspired and helped make that documentary film. And it’s not repeating itself in some far away, ‘rogue’ place. It’s happening right here in the country that documentary was filmed in and based on. The country I live in.

I can’t stop thinking about all those piled up paperclips and how they each represented a person, and how, in the future, when my son is a man, when I have potential grandchildren, some passionate and compassionate teacher in Kentucky, maybe one of my grandchildren’s teachers, will come up with a history lesson plan for middle schoolers where they collect buttons to represent each immigrant indefinitely detained by the US government in the late 20teens. It will have to be something like buttons, because there were so many, and the school needs to collect something small to be able to accommodate the large number in the collection. I wonder if they’ll obtain an old tent and set it up on an unused softball field in the fall or something. To house all the buttons and watch as the kids and the community try to grasp the scale of inhumanity when they start connecting that each one of those buttons represents a person who had to live in one of those tents.

I like writing about love and romance. That’s what I want to think about and write about all the time. It really is. And today is Independence Day, when I’m supposed to, as an American, celebrate my country and all the ideals it stands for and all it has accomplished. But I don’t feel very romantic and patriotic and celebratory today. I just feel sad and sickened. So today, I’m writing about paperclips and people.

If you feel sad and sickened today too, here’s a place where you can find ways to help people. 

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