Stories of loss and survival come to life
Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes seeking safety from Russia’s February 24 invasion, and many have huddled underground across the country. Their experience reminds us that the Virginia Holocaust Museum’s core exhibit is especially relevant during these troubled times.
Located in Shockoe Bottom, the museum opened in an unadorned former tobacco warehouse in 2003. Its main exhibit tracks the Ipson family’s escape during World War II from confinement in a 1943 ghetto in Kovno, Lithuania, to a Lithuanian Catholic family’s farm.
There, the farm owners hid 13 Jewish people for six months in an underground food pit that the refugees called “the potato hole.”
In the dark and damp bunker, adults could not stand up. They had one opening for air and daylight and were cloistered for months like “animals trapped in a dark cage,” Edna Ipson (formerly Eta Ipp) recalled.
Their only amusement was watching mice, and their toilet was a bucket that they took turns emptying surreptitiously above ground at night.
Artifacts and replicas tell story
Visiting the Holocaust Museum is a vivid reminder of hate’s horrors as well as of human resilience, an immersion in the Nazis’ rise to power and rule from 1933 to 1945, when World War II ended.
The museum’s entrance is lined with cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto and two railroad lines from a spur that led to the Treblinka death camp, where an estimated 800,000 Jews were murdered.
Inside the museum, videos and exhibits describe Germany’s concentration camps that imprisoned Jews and others, Kristallnacht’s 1938 mob violence against Jews and their businesses, and daily life in the Kovno ghetto.
A replica ghetto house has food in the frying pan representing one weekly ration. A visual bright spot is a replica of the ornate Chore Shul, a Kovno synagogue.
Among the museum’s 6,000 artifacts and 1,400 documents are a piece of original barbed wire fence from the Dachau concentration camp.
The museum tells the Ipson family’s story, including their eventual settlement in Richmond. One poignant symbol is a remnant of the precious comforter that a young Jay (Yacob) Ipson, son of Edna and Israel, clutched throughout their journey.
Jay Ipson, who huddled in the potato hole at age eight and arrived in New York at age 12, grew up to become one of the founders of the museum, along with the late Al Rosenbaum and the late Mark Fetter, the founder and long-time publisher of Fifty Plus.
A memorial to slain children
The museum’s new Children’s Memorial honors the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. It is a somber, mirrored “infinity classroom” with a chalkboard and five vintage, unoccupied wooden desks that replicate the school furniture typical of a German school in the World War II-era.
One permanent exhibit is devoted to the Nuremburg trials where — through recordings, videos and life-like mannequins — visitors learn about the trials that began in 1945 of 185 Nazi Party officials and high-ranking military officers, along with German industrialists, lawyers and doctors, all indicted for war crimes.
The museum also houses oral histories — firsthand accounts of people who witnessed genocide during the Holocaust as well as in genocides in Armenia, Cambodia and Rwanda.
For more information, visit vaholocaust.org, 2000 East Cary Street, or call (804) 257-5400.