Jay Ipson, an activist, educator and the co-founder and former executive director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, recounted his experience in the Holocaust and how he ended up immigrating to Richmond.
Ipson was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1935. His early years were simple and happy. His father was a lawyer, his mother gave birth to his younger sister and Ipson was enjoying being a kid. There was antisemitism in Lithuania, but his family continued to thrive.
Everything changed when he turned six years old in 1941.
“The Russians invaded Lithuania after making a deal with Hitler,” Ipson said.
Eventually, Ipon said, the Germans turned on the Russians and took over the country.
"I heard on the radio what is Russian for 'Attention, attention, attention,'” Ipson said. "They were saying on the radio that Hitler attacked the Russians and for the Russian soldiers to start withdrawing from Lithuania. We tried to escape with the Russians, because we knew of the antisemitism from the Lithuanians, but the German paratroopers stopped our escape."
During that attempted escape, Ipson lost his 6-month-old sister.
“When we tried to escape the German invasion, before we were stopped by the paratroopers, my mother didn't have sufficient milk to feed [my sister],” Ipson said. “We stopped at a farm house to buy some milk. It wasn't pasteurized, like what we have here in the United States, so it was contaminated. She got stomach poisoning and died at six months.”
Ipson said there was a short vacuum between the Russians leaving and the Germans occupying, but the Jewish Lithuanians were persecuted and harassed by their Lithuanian neighbors. One of the most infamous events in Holocaust history happened right in front of Ipson and his family: Lietukis Garage.
"Our Lithuanian neighbors were killing our Jewish neighbors, massacre called the Lietukis Garage…a big service station, repair shop, where they gathered a group of Jewish men and women and killed them in the street. They took water hoses and stuck it in [the victims'] cavities to blow them up.”
Hitler eventually officially came to power and Lithuania changed drastically.
"Hitler came to power in Germany, the Nazi party was elected and he was appointed speaker of the house basically, and he named himself Führer, head of the government,” Ipson said. "They passed laws against the Jews. Jews could not walk on the sidewalk, Jews could not hold certain teaching positions, Jews could not be professionals, Jews could not intermarry outside the faith with any Germans, they couldn’t sit on the same benches as the Germans, they had to walk in the gutter, they had to wear a Star Of David on the front and back of their clothing. My father was a lawyer, so they stripped him of his law degree and now he couldn’t use his legal profession."
After Lietukis Garage, Ipson said the Germans built a ghetto and forced all the Jews inside. They lived in cramped, small spaces and were rationed their food. The ghetto eventually became a concentration camp.
The camp was no longer just for the local populace. They would now bring Jewish people from around Europe to stay there.
“They kill you in both, they starve you to death in both, they work you to death in both…they are all the same,” Ipson said.
In the camp, Ipson lived on 934 calories a week. In comparison, a Big Mac and french fries from McDonald's is 1,200 calories.
"Twenty-two slices of bread, three ounces of meat, which could have come from a pet. They killed all our pets and fed them back to us. Three-quarters of an ounce of lard,” Ipson said.
Ipson said he survived three “selections” while in the camp. The last selection, barely.
Ipson describes the first selection.
"On October 28, 1941, 27,000 of us were pulled out to the field. Everyone had to come out - if you didn’t go out to the field, you'd be executed. Everyone came out, and we stood in front of a sergeant.
"He went up to the head of every household and asked ‘What is your profession, you damn Jew?’ My father was head of my family and a few neighbors felt comfortable with him so they got in our line. My father noticed scholars, rabbis, business people, were sent to the left while ditch diggers, carpenters, cobblers were sent to the right. He said to himself ‘The right is always better than the left.’
"When the sergeant came to ask him, he understood and said 'I’m a car mechanic.' They sent us to the right. Those on the right went home, those on the left were taken and they were executed. That night, 10,500 men women and children were executed."
Ipson said the next selection he was lucky enough to escape was strictly for children.
"And then, they had another selection. They wanted 1700 Jews to be deported, and by that time in 1943, they changed the ghetto to a concentration camp,” Ipson said. “So they started grabbing people off the street, and when they didn’t make their quota, they started going house-to-house. They came to our house, they grabbed us and put us in line to be deported."
Ipson, his mother, grandfather and other relatives waited for their fate. But Ipson and his mother were saved after a police officer recognized them and told them to go home, where there father would be meeting them after work.
A photograph of Ipson and his mother waiting in line was found after the war.
"My mother didn’t want to leave her family. I started crying. I wanted to go to my father, so she followed me," Ipson said. “My mother and I were the only ones that survived…her whole family was executed with those people who were deported. My father knew if we stayed much longer, we'd probably lose our lives."
In November of 1943, the Ipson family escaped.
"We cut the wire, and when we could no longer hear the guard, I was told to run across the street and hide behind the fence," Ipson said. "After the guard made a second pass, my mother came out. Since it was our neighborhood and we knew where we were, she kept touching the ground until she touched me. We didn’t say a word and we huddled and waited for what seems like forever until my father could come out. After my father came out, my cousin hooked the wires back so they wouldn’t see we escaped and a farmer took us in.”
The farmer first hid them in the barn, but realizing that was too dangerous, they dug a tunnel underground. Ipson and his family and over a dozen other people stayed under the ground of a potato patch for six months.
“I didn’t shower, didn’t bathe, lived in the dirt for six months,” Ipson said.
Until 1944, when the Russian's liberated Lithuania - where the Ipson family stayed until immigrating to Munich.
"Ninety-eight percent of Lithuanian Jews were killed," Ipson said. "Out of 220,000 Jews, less than 5,000 survived. Only 118 children. I’m one of those children.”
In 1947, the family got permission to come to the United States.
"Fortunately, my mother's uncle owned the Pepsi Cola company in Richmond, and he sponsored us,” Ipson said.
With no education, Ipson began the 6th grade at 12 years old.
"My father's first job after we got here was to clean bathrooms at a service station at Second and Lee Street,” Ipson said.
Eventually, the family opened their own service station at 1900 West Cary. Ipson himself eventually joined the Army when he was 18 and had a thriving career. He now speaks to organizations, schools and people across the country about his Holocaust experience.
With so much current political and racial divisiveness, he thinks it’s a timely message.
"If we don't learn from the Holocaust, it’s going to repeat itself,” Ipson said. “If I cut my hand, and I don’t care who I meet cuts their hand, what color is the blood? It’s all red. God created us all equal."
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