Using Tiny Tools To Teach Children a Big Lesson

By Jennifer Siegel

Published November 19, 2004, issue of November 19, 2004.
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Politics has indeed made some unusual bedfellows for Matthew Hiltzik, a 32-year-old senior vice president at Miramax Films. A graduate of Fordham Law School, he quickly ascended to deputy executive director of New York’s Democratic party in the late 1990s, and went on to manage Jewish relations for Hillary Clinton during her Senate run, before the film studio recruited him to manage community and governmental relations. And while that job generally has Hiltzik on the phone or scrolling through e-mail, when the credits roll for a new Miramax documentary, his name is front and center, listed as executive producer along with studio chiefs Bob and Harvey Weinstein. It took a very special project, he says — “Paper Clips,” a documentary about Christian children commemorating the Holocaust — to spur his first creative endeavor.

“Paper Clips,” which opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 24, is about the unlikely creation of a Holocaust memorial in the heart of the rural South. It all started in 1998, when teachers at the middle school in Whitwell — a tiny mountain town outside of Chattanooga, Tenn., with two stoplights, one motel and 2,000 residents who are almost exclusively white and Christian — developed an after-school program to address issues of diversity and tolerance through teaching about the Holocaust.

“There are very few opportunities to work on a project that truly celebrates the best we have to offer,” Hiltzik explained. “Paper Clips’ highlights the rewards the world can reap from the efforts of enthusiastic, dedicated, open-minded teachers and students in one small Tennessee town. The people of Whitwell are living examples of the righteous gentiles I learned about in my eighth grade Holocaust class.”

Spurred by a student’s question — “What is 6 million? I’ve never seen that before” — the first group of participants decided that collecting an object would help them grasp the enormity of that number. After some research, the class chose paper clips, which were invented in Norway and worn by that country’s citizens as a badge of resistance during the war. In an attempt to collect paper clips from as many people as possible, the students initiated an earnest letter-writing campaign.

While the early stages of the collection were slow going, word spread after an article about the project appeared in The Washington Post. Soon after, paper clips came pouring into Whitwell from schoolchildren and celebrities, Jews and Germans, survivors and their descendants — so many paper clips that the one-man post office could not deliver them all. The paper clip project resonated with thousands of people and then grew as they shared it with their own families and friends.

A similar chain — of friends — brought “Paper Clips” to Hiltzik’s attention. Three of his childhood buddies — Elliot Landau, Donny Epstein, and Yeeshai Gross, all also credited as executive producers — run Ergo Entertainment, a production company that was working to secure financing for the film. The trio, in turn, had learned about the project through their friend, Ari Pinchot, a producer at the McLean, Va.-based Johnson Group, which was filming the documentary. Hiltzik watched a seven-minute segment capturing the emotional visit of a group of Holocaust survivors to Whitwell and was impressed immediately.

“I said, ‘I think this is not just a TV project,’” Hiltzik recalled. He was struck equally by the film’s uplifting message and its ability to show the Holocaust through the eyes of gentiles as well as Jews. It was “a little different perspective that made you think,” he said.

Indeed, the appeal of “Paper Clips” is, in part, that it sheds light not only on the events of the Holocaust, but also on contemporary American society. Teacher David Smith provides one of the film’s most touching moments when he discusses growing up with his father’s racist language and the very different legacy he hopes to leave to his young children. At the same time, the palpable compassion and kindness of Whitwell’s residents challenges viewers who otherwise might stereotype the rural South as parochial and intolerant.

This kind of relevance, Hiltzik said, fits with Miramax’s commitment to “bring[ing] films off of the entertainment page and onto the news page.” He is currently working with the Anti-Defamation League to adapt the film for school audiences.

In Whitwell, meanwhile, the Holocaust project also has grown in significance. The students — who ultimately collected more than 30 million paper clips — dedicated a memorial on the grounds of the middle school November 9, 2001, the 63rd anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Housed in an old German cattle car, it contains 11 million of the paper clips, one for each of the Nazis’ victims. Whitwell students, who now take a class on the Holocaust as part of their regular curriculum, give educational tours to groups from other schools.

At the close of the film, after the last image of Whitwell’s green valleys has passed from view, it is the children’s names that lead the credits.

“Credit belongs with the kids and teachers,” said Hiltzik, whose mother and wife both made careers in public education. “I want people to have faith in kids, in educators and in America.”

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