As the freight train rumbles down the tracks running along East Cary Street in the historic Shockoe Bottom district of Richmond, Virginia, it passes by a former tobacco warehouse. Parked conspicuously in front of the massive building stands a train car that once carried a different kind of freight. Step inside and you discover you’re in a cattle car used to transport Jews to the death camps that sprang up like poisonous mushrooms, throughout the European landscape. This is your entrée to the Virginia Holocaust Museum.
It’s an unusual type of museum to find in this genteel old southern town, created by an unusual man who was compelled to remember. Jay Ipson and his family, survivors of the Holocaust, found a home and a mission in Richmond. Sporting his iconic ten gallon hat, the museum founder and director is frequently on hand to welcome visitors to the renovated building that opened in 1997 and became home to 28 exhibits when the artifacts outgrew their original space in Temple Beth El.
Jay Ipson, Founder & Director of Virginia Holocaust Museum exhibit
As we pass through the entry, the train motif continues, with tracks painted on the floor to guide us along the interactive exhibits. We walk through a recreated ghetto and concentration camp; we board the ill-fated ship, St. Louis; we crawl through a replica of a potato cellar where 12 people hid for nine months. This exhibit is the “Ipson Saga,” which documents the personal story of Jay’s family from pre-war Lithuania, their escape and their liberation.
Also housed within the museum walls is a collection of approximately 4,200 books, videos, and periodicals dating from the 1930’s to the present, which focus on Holocaust history, education, comparative genocide studies, and the sociology of intolerance. The Research Oral History Archives, an extensive collection of interviews with survivors, liberators, partisans and witnesses, further aims to educate present and future generations.
American prosecutor Robert Jackson stands at podium
With the active participation of the diverse Richmond community, including educators, businessmen, political leaders and dedicated volunteers who are responsible for the museum’s success, Jay Ipson thought his vision had finally been realized. But one night he awoke from a disturbing dream, haunted by the realization that “It’s not complete. I didn’t show justice.” And so began a yearlong quest to rectify what had been left out. The result is the museum’s newest and most ambitious exhibit.
We catch our breath as we enter the Nuremberg Palace of Justice “courtroom” where the international military tribunals, the Nuremberg trials, took place. Here judges from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union held 22 Nazi criminals accountable for their crimes against humanity. These trials, from November 1945 through October 1946, ultimately set the standard for modern international law.
Gallery of 22 nazi criminals seated in their assigned places
The historic scenario unfolds before the visitors’ eyes with lifelike mannequins wearing authentic uniforms reenacting their roles. They’re all here; Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess; Foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; Albert Speer, the Nazi architect and minister for armaments. When Field Marshal Hermann Goering speaks from the witness stand we are listening to his actual voice. We observe the defendants, dressed in their suits looking like businessmen, describing the business of death.
During the actual trial, footage of the carnage that the Allies found at the camps was shown on a 16 mm projector and that has also been included with a video screen transmitting the images. The Nuremberg Palace of Justice courtroom has been painstakingly recreated down to the smallest detail, including the emblems on the archways.
According to Jay Ipson, Nuremberg was chosen for the site of the trials because it was a major seat of Nazi power and the home of the infamous anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935 whose goal was to deprive Jews of their rights as citizens.
The first enacted, the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, prohibited marriages and relations between Jews and Germans as well as the employment of “German ” females under 45 in Jewish households. The second law, The Reich Citizenship Law, stripped Jews of their German citizenship.
It is the Nazis, however, who were ultimately stripped of their power to exterminate an entire civilization. A goal they planned to exhibit in their diabolical Exotic Museum to an Extinct Race. Today, it is the so-called “master race” that has been captured within the walls of a museum, where we bear witness to their demise and celebrate our survival.
Helen Zegerman Schwimmer is the author of Like The Stars of The Heavens available from amazon.com. To contact her please visit: helenschwimmer.com