The main sanctuary in Providence’s Temple Emanu-El was full on April 11 – full of people and full of the sounds of old friends and acquaintances greeting each other.
Then a hush fell over the crowd as Judie Tennenbaum played a haunting melody on her harp, signifying the beginning of our community’s annual Yom ha-Shoah commemoration. All eyes turned to the entrance as Holocaust survivors and their families entered to the harp’s sweet melody. The scene was somber and deeply moving as the procession made its way to the front of the sanctuary, where survivors and family members lit memorial candles for those they lost.
Rabbi Wayne Franklin’s opening remarks succinctly touched upon the meaning of Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. His words evoked the past, spoke to the present, and looked hopefully to the future.
“As human beings, we are not as different from each other as Isaiah’s wolf and lamb,” Franklin said. “We can learn to live in harmony. We can learn to live in peace with one another if we open our hearts wider to each other.”
Referring to the documentary “Paper Clips,” the rabbi added, “What started in Whitwell, Tennessee, grew into a monumental achievement of the human spirit ….
“Isaiah said a little child will lead the way to overcoming differences. The students in Whitwell have shown the power of young voices to lead us to peace.
“To commemorate Yom ha-Shoah tonight we stand resolute to say, and mean, never again.”
As if to underscore the rabbi’s words, pianist and composer Judith Lynn Stillman performed, with the HaZamir Choir and Cantor Brian Mayer, a piece that she composed, with lyrics from a Yiddish poem, “Sakhaki,” that offer hope and inspiration in the depths of despair: “You may laugh at my dreams, but I’ll continue to dream …. Laugh, for I believe in man, for I still believe in you.”
Radio host and Yom HaShoah Committee member Patricia Raskin then introduced the keynote speaker, Joe Fab, the producer and co-director of “Paper Clips.”
“The film ‘Paper Clips,’ which focuses on understanding and tolerance, is very relevant in today’s climate of distrust and division,” Raskin noted.
The film, released in 2004, follows the remarkable journey of middle school students in tiny Whitwell, Tennessee. In a town with no Jews and only a handful of African-Americans, the students chose the Holocaust as the vehicle to learn about tolerance.
They created the Paper Clips Project, hoping to collect 6 million paper clips to represent the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. They chose paper clips because, in their research, they had learned that in Norway, people attached paper clips to their lapels as a sign of resistance to the Nazis. And paper clips were something the students could see and count to help understand the huge number of people who lost their lives.
Paper clips poured into Whitwell from all over the world; they ended up collecting over 27 million. They went on to build a permanent memorial that people still visit.
Fab said that while making the film, he was “struck by the students’ genuine curiosity. They wanted to learn. They wanted to understand. When they met survivors, they responded with compassion.”
This got to the core of Fab’s talk: The impact that young people can have to change the world for the better. He spoke of the students in Parkland, Florida, who could have run and hid after a massacre at their high school in February, but instead forcefully spoke out about the need for changes in gun laws. He spoke of Rhode Island students who were so curious about the aftermath of the Paper Clips Project that they called the principal of Whitwell Middle School to get answers.
“On this day of Yom ha-Shoah, we can honor those who died by recognizing the power of our children who are living,” Fab said.
After his talk, survivor Alice Eichenbaum introduced Arthur Robbins as this year’s Never Again Award recipient. In accepting the award, Robbins said, “To have Alice present this award is so meaningful to me, because it was her late husband Ray who, in 1981, asked me to assist with the formation of the Rhode Island Holocaust Committee.”
Those meetings laid the groundwork for what eventually become the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center and the Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial, both in Providence.
LEV POPLOW is a communications consultant who writes on behalf of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.