Robert H. Gillette
Charleston: History Press, 2015
Robert H. Gillette is a retired educator living in Lynchburg, Va., who researched this intriguing story and retraced it within its larger historical context through the experiences of Werner (Töpper) Angress and Eva Jacobson, two young German- Jewish Berliners, growing up in Nazi Germany. Both were prolific diarists in their youth, thereby providing valuable, first-hand-insights into the daily life during the early years of the Third Reich. Growing anti-Semitism forced both out of their high schools. Eva spent over a year in a boarding school in London where she felt utterly lonely and homesick.
In the meantime, Dr. Curt Bondy, a German-Jewish educator from Hamburg, purchased Gross Breesen, a former castle near the German city of Breslau (today Polish Wrocław), transforming it into an educational farm for young German Jews to learn farming skills, which would later help them acquire emigration visas. Eva and Werner passed the tough entrance interview in which more than 400 applicants were denied acceptance. Altogether 130 students went through the training at the farm where they learned agricultural skills as well as character building qualities. After evening dinner, daily classical concerts by the students concluded the day and Eva, who was a gifted piano player, soon become part of this tradition.
The idyllic world of Gross Breesen, its camaraderie and pioneer spirit, was however more and more overshadowed by the growing fascist terror surrounding them, soon erupting into the horrors of Kristallnacht. The Gestapo raided Gross Breesen and its students ended up in the Buchenwald concentration camp, where they spent several days under harrowing conditions.
In the meantime, Bondy and William Thalhimer, the Richmond department store owner, had met and agreed to bring as many students as possible from Gross Breesen to Virginia. Thalhimer bought a plantation farm in Burkeville, 90 miles south of Richmond. Still, it was difficult to obtain visas for his young protegees. For 13 months, Gillette writes, Thalhimer “waged battle after battle against the aggressive bureaucratic hostility of the State Department.”
Since the United States had dramatically cut entrance visas from Germany during that period, Gross Breeseners not only came to Virginia, but were scattered all over the world from Argentina to Parana and from Kenya to Australia. Eva and Werner made it to Virginia and tilled the land at Hyde Farmlands, as their new home was called— until the farm had to be disbanded due to growing financial trouble. Soon afterwards, Eva and Werner joined the army, Eva as a hospital nurse and Werner as one of its legendary Ritchie Boys. Over half a century later, Hyde Farmlands was dedicated as a National and Virginian Historic Site in 2013.
There is so much more to learn from the exceptional life stories of Eva Jacobson and Werner Angress, as well as the remarkable endeavors of Curt Bondy and William Thalhimer. 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.
Frederick Lubich is a professor at Old Dominion University in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.