Ok, so there’s this thing called “The Paperclip Project,” which was an idea that a middle school in Tennessee had to memorialize victims of the Holocaust. Apparently, a documentary was made about this project. (I had no idea. Can’t wait to see it. I think it’s on Netflix.)
Aaaaanyway. The Who’s school is housed inside a synagogue and last month, the synagogue broke ground to build this giant paperclip statue outside as a nod to this project.** It’s really pretty cool and when I learned what it was all about (after several weeks of speculation and wonder with The Who as we passed it at drop-off) I told him. I didn’t tell him anything specific. Just that it was a paperclip statue for the synagogue.
Fast forward two months. As I’m driving, The Who — out of the blue — asks me about the paperclip. (We weren’t even near the school. I have long since given up on trying to trace the path of his thoughts to figure out where his questions come from.) So, I tell him it’s a memorial.
“What’s a memorial?” he naturally asked.
“Well,” I said. “Sometimes, when people want to remember people or honor them or remember something that happened, they will build a statue or something like that to remind them.”
“Statues are of people.”
“Yes. Some statues are of people. Lots of them, but some of them are of things.”
“Why is that one a paperclip?”
I explained that the paperclip reminded people of a story about about a mean man named Hitler who killed lots of people because he didn’t like how they looked or who they were. The paperclip was built so we would remember the story and the people who died and so it would never happen again. (It occurs to me now that I never did quite make the paperclip connection because, as you might imagine, once I mentioned that a dude killed a bunch of people, the conversation took a much different path.)
“How many people did he kill? Ten?” he asked, his eyes wide.
“He killed about 6 million Jews,” I told him, my tone incredulous to match what I knew he had to be thinking.
“Six MILLION? That’s as many can fit in our big purple [exercise] ball! How many people did he kill who weren’t Jews?”
“Another 6 million.”
“That’s so many people!” he said. And then, immediately: “Why did he kill all those people?”
“Well,” I said, knowing I was falling deeper into the rabbit hole than I had bargained for, “he didn’t like people who were different than he was. He didn’t like Jewish people or men who loved men or women who loved women — gay people — or people whose skin was a different color than his.”
He thought about this for a minute and then, clearly latching onto the skin color element, said, “But we’re the same as him, so he didn’t kill us, right?”
“No, actually,” I corrected. “We’re Jews. We’re not the same as him. But he didn’t kill us because people made him stop killing long before we were born. We’re really lucky.”
“Oh, so you mean he killed people when the dinosaurs were here? Did he kill dinosaurs?”
I explained that, no, it wasn’t quite that long ago. To put it in perspective, I said that it stopped happening right before his Grandpa was born. But that it was still happening when his Nana was alive. He chewed on that for a while, too, and then said:
“The Wicked Witch is more wicked than Hitler. He has five pieces of wicked and the Wicked Witch has 100 pieces of wicked.”
I knew that reasoning with him on this was going to be an exercise in futility, but I tried.
“Well, he doesn’t look wicked, like the witch. Or like a monster. If you saw a picture of him, he would just look like a man to you, but he is actually much more wicked than the witch. He killed so many people for no good reason, but the witch was just trying to get the ruby slippers and didn’t actually kill anyone.”
“No, Mama,” he told me, firmly. “You’re wrong.” The Wicked Witch has more wickedness.” (Yes, he said “wickedness.” He turns adjectives into nouns, no big whoop, much to my delight. He also used “otherwise” correctly in a sentence yesterday. But I digress.) I decided not to fight him on it because we were coming up on dinnertime and no one needs to engage in a battle of wills with a hungry, tired four-year-old.
And, so that was that. Then we went into Target and had a little gift-card shopping spree and Hitler was all but forgotten. I had to come home and tell m* all about it, though, in anticipation of the day when he, again out of the blue, says something like, “Remember that time when Hitler killed 6 million Jews?”
No one needs to be hit with that at 7am on a Sunday morning without warning.
** Edited to add: once I began watching the film tonight, I learned that the reason the school collected paper clips is because people in Norway wore paper clips on their collars during the Holocaust as a show of solidarity. So the paper clip really became a symbol of solidarity and that is the reason for the statue. Not actually the middle school’s project.