After seizing power in Germany in 1933, the Nazis instituted a slew of anti-Jewish decrees designed to remove Jews from economic and social life. By 1935, with the passage of the Nuremberg Race Laws and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor, it became almost impossible for Jews to continue to practice a profession or provide for their families.
In 1936, the Jewish community in Gross Breesen created an agricultural school for students between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. Dr. Curt Bondy, a well-respected German social psychologist, took over as director. In the program, young people learned how to tend crops and care for livestock in order to help them emigrate out of Germany. This proved to be a successful plan as 150 of the 200 students managed to leave for various countries around the world.
Thirty of those students wound up in Virginia. This happened largely because of two Richmond businessman who were cousins, William and Morton Thalhimer. The department store owner, William, and real estate financier, Morton, bought a 1,600-acre parcel of land near Burkeville known as Hyde Farmland. With the help of his attorney Leroy Cohen, William spent almost two years petitioning the U.S. State Department and providing affidavits for twenty-one of the Gross Breesen students in order to bring them safely to the United States.
The Thalhimer cousins divided the land among the young Jews working on the farm, making them landowners, which allowed them to circumvent existing U.S. immigration quotas designed to let only certain kinds of people into the United States. The Gross Breesen students lived and worked at Hyde Farmland until 1941 when the United States entered World War II. A year earlier, Dr. Bondy had joined the psychology department at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
The farmhouse and accompanying land sold in early 1941 and many of the farm students volunteered to enter the armed forces. As German refugees, they found roles as interpreters and several wound up in units that eventually liberated Jews and other people who had been held captive in concentration camps in western Germany.
After the war, the students who moved to Hyde Farmland and Dr. Bondy remained in touch and held a number of reunions. The last reunion in Virginia took place in 2004.
Photos: courtesy Virginia Holocaust Museum