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Survivor Stories: The Virginia Holocaust Museum


At the Virginia Holocaust Museum, said Executive Director Samuel Asher, “we look to safeguard the stories of victims of genocide and to educate visitors of the danger of hatred unchecked.” While learning about the Holocaust is difficult, he said, it is important history that needs to be examined to understand how it happened and why ordinary people didn’t speak up.

Megan Ferenczy, the museum’s director of education, recently shared information about the museum, including artifacts and portions of the museum’s virtual tour, in an online program hosted by AARP Virginia.

From its beginning in 1997, the Virginia Holocaust Museum has focused on recording and sharing the stories of survivors and liberators who settled in Virginia after World War II. The museum’s collection includes survivor oral histories, several of which Ferenczy shared in part during the program.

Outside the museum is a German boxcar like the boxcars used to transport victims to concentration camps. These boxcars, which held 80-100 people, had no seats, no food, and no water. Journeys to the camps often took several days.

“It was frightening because we all knew where we were going,” said Ted Lehman in an oral interview. His journey was during the hot summer of 1943, and by the time they arrived at Auschwitz, he recalls several people were “dead on arrival.”

Clara Daniels (née Fried) recalls people crammed together standing up for two to three days during her journey to Auschwitz in 1944, with no seats and no toilets. “This wasn’t an ordinary train car” like the ones seen in photos, she recalled, but instead a freight car.

Lehman, who was from Poland, was a forced laborer in camps and German factories at several locations before escaping during an air raid in 1945. After the war, Lehman, who spoke several languages, worked as a translator for the U.S. military before moving to the United States in 1947. He subsequently earned degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University before moving to Virginia.

Born in Hungary, Daniels lived on a farm before being deported to a ghetto in in 1944. She was sent to Auschwitz and later to Dachau. After liberation, she was moved to a displaced persons camp, for people who had no resources or family or who were in poor health. She moved to the United States in 1949, where she met and married her husband, also a survivor, in Brooklyn before coming to Virginia.

Cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto, where Polish Jews were sent before being deported to concentration camps, are right inside the museum’s entrance. Halina Zimm (née Drexel) recalled living across the street from the ghetto, seeing “Jews dying of hunger” and feeling helpless to assist them.

Zimm, who is Jewish, recalled life was pretty good in Poland until the Nazis invaded in 1939. Her father moved the family to a smaller community where he hoped the family would be safer. While many residents dismissed rumors of concentration camps, Zimm’s father had greater foresight, obtaining false Christian birth certificates for Halina and her older sister. When Zimm and her sister were sent away in November 1940, she knew she’d never see her family again. The Nazis invaded the community two weeks later.

The teenage Zimm found work as a housekeeper for a young Catholic family near the Warsaw ghetto. With her false identity as a Catholic named Wanda, she was “hiding out in the open.”

One day at the market, she noticed a woman from her home city. Nazi and Polish police were waiting for her when she returned home. They accused her of being a Jew and demanded she say Catholic prayers and answer questions about Catholicism. Fortunately, her employer stood up for her and assured them she was Catholic.

Zimm was liberated by the Russians, and she met her husband, Richard, also a survivor, in 1945. The Zimms moved to Richmond in 1949.

Another of the museum’s artifacts is a train bench labeled “Forbidden for Jews.” Not unlike “whites only” designations in the U.S. following the Civil War, this, said Ferenczy, is how the pattern of hate and intolerance began in Germany.

After Germany’s defeat in WWI, the country was in shambles, undergoing one of the worst depressions in modern history. The revamped German government failed to revive the war-torn country, paving the way for the rise of the National Socialist German Worker’s (Nazi) party, whose charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler, promised to create jobs and revitalize the economy, appealing to a country desperate for change. Hitler quickly assumed the role of supreme leader of the Nazis, and, ultimately, of Germany.

Nazis viewed the German people as the only pure race, often called Aryan, while other races were labeled “undesirable.”

To consolidate power, Hitler established concentration camps, where political enemies were imprisoned and mistreated without recourse. Prisoners wore inverted triangles to represent their prisoner categories, which included red for political prisoners, green for convicts, pink for homosexual men, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, and black for what were considered asocial individuals such as mentally ill and disabled, alcoholics and drug addicts, vagrants and beggars, sex workers, and lesbians.

Beginning in 1941, all Jews were dehumanized and required to wear a gold star, indicating they were “enemies of the people.”

In November 1938, the Nazis executed a coordinated massive and violent attack against Jews, known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. Nazis and locals smashed and destroyed over 10,000 homes, businesses, and synagogues, and over 30,000 men were arrested just because they were Jewish.

Alexander Lebenstein was a young boy during Kristallnacht and remembers how frightening it was. His father, a WWI decorated veteran, thought he would be exempt because he was a loyal German soldier who had served his country. Instead, the Nazis ripped his medals off his chest, spat in his face, and beat him and his wife.

It was “painful to watch my parents being beaten, worse than any pain I experienced later on,” said Lebenstein.

Lebenstein performed forced labor at several different camps before being liberated by the Russians in 1945, but he tried to flee because he “didn’t want to join the Red Army.” He ultimately relocated to Richmond in 1947.

Today only about five of the several hundred Holocaust survivors who relocated to Richmond and Virginia after the war are still living, said Ferenczy. The oldest is Halina Zimm, who is 95. While some survivors were unwilling to share their stories, the museum’s collection includes about 230 oral histories.

The museum’s exhibits and programs, said Ferenczy, show how “hatred and bias play on people’s fears,” leading to control and dehumanization. Although the focus is on the Holocaust, the museum also has archives from other genocide events.

The program is available on AARP Virginia’s YouTube channel.

More information, including oral histories and a virtual tour, are available on the Virginia Holocaust Museum website.

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