One day, a student (though no one quite remembers which one) asked the group, “What is 6 million? I’ve never seen 6 million.” In response, the class decided to collect 6 million of something to help visualize the magnitude of Jewish deaths during the war. In the end, they decided upon paper clips. Many Norwegian students, they had learned, wore paper clips on their lapels as an act of quiet protest during the war. They were also small and cheap enough to collect en masse—and, moreover, could serve as symbols of unity, attachment, and interconnectedness.
And so it began. Students ruffled through their own drawers, then recruited neighbors and friends to donate as well. To gain exposure, they set up a website and started writing letters asking for additional paper clips. These were the days before crowdfunding and ice bucket challenges; the students couldn’t have imagined that their project could go viral.
One of the earliest mailed-in paper clips came from Lena Glitter, a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Washington, D.C. Soon, celebrities joined in: then-president Bill Clinton, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, the Tennessee Titans, and the Dallas Cowboys, among others. By the year’s end, the students had gathered about 100,000 clips.