Inside the Virginia Holocaust Museum – a converted Shockoe Bottom warehouse just east of downtown Richmond – there’s a sign:
First they came for the Communists – but
I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists
and the Trade Unionists,
but I was not one of them
so I did not speak out.
When they went after the Jews,
I did not speak, because I was not a Jew.
And when they came for me,
there was not one left to speak out for me.
– Attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoller
Pastor Niemoller, a German Lutheran who did speak out, spent seven years in concentration camps, along with others who refused to comply with Hitler’s mission to eliminate all races other than pure German or Aryan. During the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s, six million Jews, 1.5 million of those children, were killed. Other groups of people targeted for elimination included homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with disabilities, and Gypsies.
One of the missions of the Virginia Holocaust Museum is to inspire future generations of Virginians to fight prejudice and indifference. With that goal in mind, I visited the museum with three Richmond-area high school juniors: Talia Scharf attends Godwin High School; Jacob Zedd is a student at Yeshiva of Virginia; and Charlotte Whelan is enrolled at St. Catherine’s. The museum does not recommend that children younger than eleven or twelve visit.
Stepping into the dimly lit restored tobacco warehouse, there is an immediate sense of sacred ground. This is a museum commemorating the dead, honoring survivors, and recognizing those individuals Jews refer to as the Righteous Among the Nations – people who saved Jews during the Holocaust, putting their own lives at risk. Oskar Schindler is one of the Righteous. His story is depicted in the Oscar-winning film: Schindler’s List. Charlotte, who attends St. Edward Catholic Church, said the museum’s Hall of the Righteous, which presents pictures of Catholics who hid Jews, demonstrates the importance of helping others during dangerous times.
Following a path of painted railroad tracks inside the museum, we are transported through history. Each room is a vivid model of historical events representing Hitler’s reign over Jews and other minorities. Kristallnacht (or the Night of Broken Glass: Germany, 1938) appears as a movie set. Here, we walk through a Jewish community in chaos – the windows of homes, stores, and synagogues shattered. That night, during acts of violence incited by Nazis, numerous Jews were assaulted or killed, and others were transported to concentration camps.
But even in the midst of horror and ruin, we are reminded of goodness and hope. Our journey takes us out of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania to Jay Ipson’s harrowing story of survival as his family hid in a potato hole on the farm of a Christian family. For months, these thirteen Jews lived in a small dark hole until they were liberated by Russian soldiers. Visitors to the museum walk through a dark and narrow hallway to view a reconstruction of the potato hole with figures of the family members inside. In 1947, Jay and his parents came to America and made Richmond their home. Jay Ipson is one of the founders of the Virginia Holocaust Museum.
Mass killings, starvation, and labor camps resulted in the death of millions under Nazi rule. As exhibits tell the story, there’s an overwhelming sense of sadness when one tries to comprehend the murder of innocent men, women, and children. Talia points to the glowing light of a memorial candle inside a replicated brick oven where bodies were once burned. “So we will never forget,” she says. Talia is a member of Congregation Or Atid and is well-versed in the history of her religion.
The Alexander Lebenstein Survivor’s Room is one of the most meaningful exhibits for Jacob. Here, photographs of Jewish men and women who survived the Holocaust and made their homes in Virginia line the walls. Their individual stories are shared through letters, documents, and pictures. Verbal accounts of their experiences via a monitor provide an intimate look into the devastating realities of the Holocaust. Jacob views these survivors as a generation upholding his religion, despite their painful past.
The Nuremberg courtroom in Germany, where Nazis were put on trial, is recreated with exceptional detail. This is where lawyers and other officials of the International Military Tribunal held court to seek justice for the millions who died under Hitler’s command. Four charges indict 185 defendants: Count One: The Common Plan of Conspiracy; Count Two: Crimes Against Peace; Count Three: War Crimes; Count Four: Crimes Against Humanity. Audio from the original trial proceedings plays in the background.
With our tour coming to an end, we visit The Choral Synagogue. This Jewish house of worship is a beautiful replica of the Kovno synagogue dedicated in 1871. Inside is a Torah from Lithuania – a scroll of Jewish law and teachings. This scroll survived the Holocaust when so many synagogues and lives were destroyed. I think of my Lithuanian Jewish grandparents who immigrated to America before Hitler’s reign of terror.
Before leaving the museum, I venture inside a barbed wire enclosure displaying photos of Jews who died during the Holocaust – relatives of Virginia Holocaust survivors. Above me a stained glass window is inscribed with the Hebrew word: zachor. It’s an important word for the teens who have come to the Holocaust Museum of Virginia, and for all of us. It means – remember.