Escape to Virginia: From Nazi Germany to Thalhimer's Farm

Escape to Virginia: From Nazi Germany to Thalhimer's Farm

by Robert H. Gillette

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“Fascinating . . . Provides a history of the Holocaust as the tapestry against which the trials and adventures of these young Jewish youth played out” (Jewish Book Council).
Jewish teenagers Eva and Töpper were desperately searching for an escape from the stranglehold of 1930s Nazi Germany. They studied agriculture at the Gross Breesen Institute in hopes of securing visas to gain freedom from the tyranny around them. Then, Richmond department store owner William B. Thalhimer created a safe haven on a rural Virginia farm where Eva and Töpper would find refuge.
Discover the remarkable true story of two young German Jews who endured the emotional torture of their adolescence, journeyed to freedom, and ultimately confronted the evil that could not destroy their spirit. Author Robert H. Gillette retells this harrowing narrative that is sure to inspire generations to come.
Includes photos!
Escape to Virginia is not only an illuminating history lesson, bridging the Old World and the New World during its most tumultuous period, it is also an exemplary story on various levels and for readers of all ages, crystallizing time and again the Gross Breesen spirit of hope, courage and resilience. The book is well researched, vividly narrated, and richly illustrated.” —Jewish New

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781625854438
Publisher: Arcadia Publishing SC
Publication date: 03/08/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 5 MB
Age Range: 12 - 16 Years

About the Author

Robert Gillette’s entire professional career revolved around young people. For forty years, he was an award-winning public school educator in Fairfield, Connecticut. He was awarded the Mary Gresham Chair grant and the Harvard Teaching Prize, amongst many recognitions. Similarly, he has directed religious education programs and created Jewish education curriculum. Bob and his wife Marsha spend their time as avid canoe paddlers and live in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt



In his sleep, he coughed so hard that the gagging woke him with a start. Then he took a deep breath ... Silence. The coughing had stopped. The sound of gurgling phlegm rattling deep in his lungs was gone. In that grogginess between deep sleep and sudden wakefulness, he soon realized that he was not really coughing; it was all a dream. Only a dream. He could breathe without coughing. The dream was more than a dream; it was a nightmare.

During the day, bits and pieces began to reproduce themselves into conscious images, as if a complicated puzzle were being reconstructed from jumbled fragments. In it, he sat next to a campfire. He loved campfires. He poked the burning embers that dropped from the bigger logs with the thin stick that he had whittled sharp with his jackknife. He peered into the glimmering coals that shimmered red and orange. Then, a puff of smoke shot out of the fire and whirled around his head. His eyes smarted and he coughed. He turned away from the fire, but the stinging smoke continued to wrap itself around him. He stood up and walked away from the fire to escape the smoke, to breathe the fresh cool air that felt minty on his flushed cheeks. That did not help. The smoke followed him and swirled about him as a white mist. He walked faster away from the campfire where other campers were still sitting. To his surprise, they were not consumed in smoke. Even though he distanced himself from the fire, the smoke followed him, and he could not stop coughing. He broke into a run, but he could not escape the toxic cloud. He felt nauseous. He covered his mouth with his handkerchief, but that did not filter out the suffocating smoke. No matter how far he ran, he could not escape. He gasped for air. That was the nightmare.

Werner Angress was fifteen years old, and he was a German Jew. Often, he found it difficult to tell the difference between his nightmares and his daytime life. Ever since Hitler became the fuhrer in 1933, his life had become more and more complicated and depressing. In March 1936, months before the end of the school year, he dropped out of his German public high school. At first, not going to school was not so traumatic, for after all, he was never a huge fan of school. He found most classes to be boring, and even though he was very smart, he had a difficult time with math and science. He did well in the subjects he loved — literature, history, German and physical education — but only a few of his teachers stimulated him. As with so many really smart kids, if they are not challenged, they tune out and turn off. That was Werner. In his diary, he wrote, "Morning: school boring." This entry appeared over and over again. But he dropped out of high school for another reason. He concluded that there was no point in studying for the final exams. Jews were forbidden to practice any of the professions he was interested in and Jews were no longer admitted to the university, so why study? As far as school was concerned, he was at a dead end. In fact, there were very few Jews still left in the public schools. Most were expelled, and the others, like Werner who were so uncomfortable, decided to leave. He was a proud German, but he was a Jew, and Jews had no place in German schools anymore.

Compared to most other Jewish students, his school experience was not so menacing. One of his teachers once told him that he was lucky "to be in a relatively decent class." If his school experience was "relatively decent," one can only imagine how bad it was for most other Jewish students. The constant Nazi propaganda and the morning exercise of praising Hitler began to eat at Werner. As soon as the teacher entered the room, along with his classmates, he jumped up erectly, raised his arm, pointed his fingers with the rigidity of a sword and saluted with the shout in unison, "Heil Hitler." He joined his classmates when they recited the morning prayer:

Dear God, hear our plea, Let Germany become strong again. Fill us all with moral energy, It is the pious who work for the fatherland. Let good German work succeed So that we will achieve the Empire anew. Amen!

Werner interpreted the prayer differently from his classmates. He yearned for the "old" German nation, not the new Nazi one. He was, however, surprised by some of his teachers who did not, as yet, totally follow the Nazi teachers' handbook. To his utter astonishment, he was selected by his physical education teacher to be a team leader and participate in national sport competitions. To be so selected was unimaginable for a Jew. He did well in the competitions, but he was heartbroken when in January 1936, a new law forbade him from wearing the medal he had won, the Reich Youth Sports Badge, because he was a Jew. Other teachers were not so empathetic. They delighted in uttering anti-Semitic slurs every chance they could, and they did not hide their dislike of Werner. In music class, the teacher had the students sing Nazi fighting songs that contained anti-Semitic lyrics. Most of the students had belonged to the Hitler Youth since 1933 so they knew the words by heart. Some would recite despicable anti-Jewish ditties:

Two Jews were once bathing in a river, Since even pigs sometimes have to bathe. The first one, he drowned; The other one, we hope he did, too.

Werner read the newspaper daily, so he was quite aware of what was going on. Ever since 1932, politics had been discussed openly and often at home. More and more, Werner was included in the discussions, and his questions often were pointed and significant. It was in this intense atmosphere that a lifelong passion for history and politics first emerged. He was well aware that the condition of the powerless Jews was worsening. The Hitler jokes his mother told could do little to reassure him: "Do you know what a Hitler herring is, no? Well, you take a Bismarck herring, remove its brain, tear its mouth wide open and there you have your Hitler herring." His parents suggested he attend one of the Jewish schools that tried to replace the public schools, but he balked at the idea. Werner saw himself more as a German than as a Jew; he did not really feel at home in the Jewish world. The Nazis identified him as being Jewish, but deep down, he did not feel that way.

Werner had blond hair and blue eyes. He looked like the perfect, young German, the Aryan face that appeared in Nazi textbooks and magazines. He could have been the poster boy for the Hitler Youth Organization. On the street, people never suspected he was Jewish, but lately, dark, half-mooned circles had begun appearing under his eyes, and the usual sparkle was gone. It was bad enough that he had to face his new life during the daytime. Now, even in sleep, he could not escape that depressing, isolated world as it oozed into the deep cavities of his mind. He dreaded the night and its sleepless tossing and turning.

Like so many German boys, Werner romanticized the military. In his fantasies as a youngster, he pictured himself dressed in a perfect uniform with gleaming medals and high, polished boots. He was stirred by military parades and marching bands. He understood why the old World War I veterans proudly wore their medals on their civilian clothing. Germans glorified the military. Werner's dream to become a soldier was shattered when the Nazi government announced that German young men were to be drafted into the army, but Jews were excluded. This point was driven home when he went to a parade that celebrated the inauguration of the new parliament in 1933. His heart raced with pride as he heard the bands approach, but the song sung by the marchers crushed his mood:

Throw them out, the whole Jewish band,
Throw them out of our fatherland.
Send them back to Jerusalem,
But first chop off their legs,
So they won't come back.
Throw them out, all these Jews of Moses,
Throw them out with their hooked noses.
Send them back to Jerusalem,
So they'll all be together With their clan of Shem.

Werner could not understand why Jews were not German enough. Hadn't 100,000 Jews proudly served in World War I and 10,000 Jewish soldiers died in combat fighting for the "Faterland"? Germany, as did most European countries, created social and hiking clubs for youth, but by the end of 1933, Jews were no longer allowed in them. The clubs evolved into the Hitler Youth Movement. Its purpose was to prepare teenagers for military service. Both boys and girls were trained in the Nazi way of life. The goal for the boys was to be disciplined soldiers, totally committed to Hitler and the German nation. The ultimate goal for the girls was to give birth to Aryan babies and to support their husbands and the home. By 1934, every Saturday was designated as State Youth Day. The boys (Jungfolk, the Hitler Youth) and the Bund of Deutscher Madel (the League of German Girls) met for Nazi indoctrination and military and physical training. For those not in the Jungfolk, on Saturdays, there were obligatory Nazi indoctrination classes for the "cripples": Jews, non-Aryans, the physically handicapped and other political undesirables. There, Werner had to recite the Confession of Faith: "I believe in the dead who gave their lives for their people. For my god is my people. I believe in Germany." Werner hated attending Saturday classes, but he had no choice.

As Nazi brainwashing through the Hitler Youth program and the schools became more effective, families split apart. Werner lived in a dense Berlin neighborhood. When the days were hot, through the open windows he could hear the arguments between parents and children, more than before. The traditional authority of the papa was challenged by sons and daughters who now proclaimed their allegiance to Hitler's state rather than to parents. What the Nazi youth leader said was more important than what the parents wished. He saw young neighbors spy on members of their own families. Powerless parents began to fear their own children.

Werner depended on his bicycle to spring him free from the dark moods of his home and Berlin neighborhood. When he pedaled out into the rural suburbs, he felt like a bird in flight, the air streaming through his blond hair. When he rode by himself, he never felt alone. Rather, he felt powerful and in control. His legs were strong, and he challenged hills with confidence.

What really saved his sanity at this perilous time was his Jewish Youth Group, the Bund. He was popular with his youth group friends, and he loved to be outdoors, bicycling and hiking, camping and sleeping in tents on the weekends, away from the city and his family. He loved sitting around the campfire singing and laughing at jokes. He had known his Bund buddies ever since Hitler came into power in 1933. He saw them as comrades, more than just friends whom he knew from school. He craved freedom and adventure. When the youth group bicycled into the country to find a suitable camping site, they were always on edge, not wanting to encounter a Nazi youth group that might be camping nearby. This was part of the excitement, a kind of guerrilla warfare without the bullets, but in reality, clashes between the two groups often were bloody. Avoiding a confrontation was serious business, so spies were sent out to reconnoiter.

Except for the security and comradery of his Jewish youth group, everything had changed. Most of the fun in life — and Werner loved to fool around — had vanished under Nazi rule. Outside of the Bund, the easy laugh by which he was known was silenced. At home, he became dark and sullen. More and more, he felt cut off from everything he knew in German life. He felt he did not know who he was anymore. Wasn't he a German? He thought so, but now he was only a Jew living in Germany. After the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, his parents were no longer considered citizens, so that made him a "guest," an alien in his own homeland. He thought about his public school friends and his teachers. They were all gone. They were all silent. They did not ask for him. They turned their backs on him. He felt betrayed. How he yearned for the old days of friends, studies, soccer, hiking and girlfriends. Everything had changed overnight.

He could not understand how easily and quickly so many Germans now worshipped their messiah, the Fuhrer Hitler, who promised them a new life of hope and prosperity. Tens of thousands attended political rallies. At the 1935 Nuremberg rally, fifty-four thousand Hitler Youth paraded before Hitler, who addressed them: "You shall be swift as the greyhound, tough as leather, and hard as Krupp steel." Everywhere, there were Nazi flags and huge banners of red with a white circle that enclosed the black swastika. Drummers thundered in unison and thrilled the people as they have done since ancient armies marched into battle. Thousands of torches illuminated the nighttime rallies that coaxed the shadows of phantoms out of the forest or out of the dark souls of the German people themselves. The blazing torches exaggerated everything, especially the ranting figure of Hitler.

One night, without his parents' permission, Werner bicycled across town and climbed a tree that looked out over the huge city plaza. The wind swayed the branches he stood on, and when he scanned the crowd, he felt he was peering into a long, fun-house mirror of a traveling carnival. Everything seemed distorted. People were twisted out of shape, grotesque in size and form. The torches cast a supernatural red glow that reflected off the spectators. Hitler's speech lasted for hours, and the listeners seemed drugged and hypnotized. Their bodies leaned against one another. Individuals melded into one gigantic, breathing, swaying organism, a new kind of species that had mutated overnight. The rhythm of Hitler's words stirred the onlookers into a frenzy. Soldiers marched in perfect formation. Brown shirts, gray shirts, black shirts — the soldiers were everywhere. Teenagers, both male and female, proudly wore the uniforms of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). How powerful they felt. How they imagined themselves as brave soldiers of the Reich.

The crowds pushed together and sang and cheered. They were the privileged Aryan race, citizens of the new Germany, soldiers in the Nazi revolution. Patriotic fervor exploded when thousands shouted the unifying mantra, "Heil Hitler." In every city and town, up and down the narrow cobblestone streets, Nazi hatred careened off the old gray-stoned buildings. Werner wanted to strike his ears deaf when the rallies always ended in a repetitive slogan: "Get rid of the Jews!" In the Nazi mind, Jews were not true Germans, not pure Aryans. They corrupted the blood purity of the German race. They were the "other," not like "us." They sucked the blood out of the Germany economy. They were traitors! They were the enemy. That's what so many Germans thought.

No wonder Werner Angress had nightmares. No wonder he felt suffocated. He dreaded every day. His Jewish friends clung to one another for support, but there was no escaping the feeling of drifting, of coming dangerously close to the rocky edge of a sheer cliff. The adult Jewish community tried its best to create schools for the teenagers, but the school rooms were makeshift, and often, the teachers could not respond adequately to the older students who could not understand their own anger, their own sense of desperation and defeat in this new world of whispers.

Nightly, Werner awoke to hear his father pacing. Often, he heard his parents whisper. The whispers between Jewish mothers and fathers, their questions, could not be uttered out loud. The children should not hear them. All Jewish parents asked the same questions: Should they leave Germany? How could they leave their German homes, where some families had lived for hundreds of years? Did they have enough money to leave? And if they stayed, would this Nazi disease burn itself out; would the storm pass? And what to do about the grandparents? Could they start a new life somewhere else? Could they adjust? And finally, with grave hesitation, the most crushing whisper of all: Should the children be sent away, to leave Germany on their own, to have a new life and a new future in safety? These were the questions of desperation whispered after the children supposedly fell asleep. But whispers have a life of their own. Muffled tones could penetrate walls and climb stairs. Nobody was fooling anyone. The children knew. They could hear the whispers, and they were frightened.


Excerpted from "Escape to Virginia"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Robert H. Gillette.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword. Those Who Knew Them Best, by Jacqueline Jacobsohn and Miriam Angress,
What Is Creative History?,
About Suffering, Courage and Hope,
1. Nightmare,
2. Werner's Interview,
3. Dr. Curt Bondy and the Opening of Gross Breesen,
4. Werner Arrives at Gross Breesen, 1936,
5. Life at Gross Breesen,
6. Eva's Expulsion, 1936,
7. Eva at St. Paul's Girls' School, England, 1936,
8. Summer Vacation, Germany, 1936,
9. St. Paul's, 1936–1937,
10. Witness to History,
11. The Final Push, 1937,
12. Eva at Gross Breesen, 1937–1938,
13. "Inside Work",
14. Comfort in Routine,
15. The Drought,
16. Heartache and Growing Up,
17. Töpper, the Spokesman,
18. A Ray of Hope, 1938,
19. The Postcard to Töpper,
20. A Telephone Call to Eva,
21. Eva's Escape,
22. "Root Holds" at Hyde Farmlands,
23. Töpper in Exile,
24. Krystallnacht, November 9–10, 1938,
25. Imprisoned in Buchenwald Concentration Camp,
26. Panic and Response,
27. Release from Buchenwald,
28. Thalhimer's Victory!,
29. Waiting for a Visa,
30. Töpper's Journey to Hyde Farmlands,
31. Töpper at Hyde Farmlands, 1939–1940,
32. Major Construction and a Chicken Industry,
33. Constant Worry,
34. Hyde Farmlands Closes, 1941,
35. "Tom," the War Years,
36. Eva, the War Years,
37. Bondy and Thalhimer, the War Years,
38. "They Who Sow in Tears",
About the Author,

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