Robert Gillette, the keynote speaker at Fairfield's 30th annual Holocaust Commemoration on Wednesday night, was nowhere near the Nazi reign of terror that killed six million Jews from 1933 to 1945. And he was only 8 years old when the war ended.
But Gillette, who taught high school English in Fairfield for 30 years, said his quest to keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive began when his daughter-in-law told him about a conversation that took place at Hyde Farmlands Bed and Breakfast in Burkeville, Va., in the mid-1990s.
Gillette said one of the guests had asked a waitress about some nearby log cabins, and the waitress replied, "Those are the Jew huts. There were these people called Jews who lived there."
Gillette, who heard the story from his daughter-in-law in 2006, said it sounded like the waitress was describing a long-lost civilization. He said he began research into the "Jew huts" that lasted five years and that culminated in "The Virginia Plan," a book about William B. Thalhimer, an American businessman who rescued 21 Jewish agricultural students from Nazi Germany and brought them to work on a Virginia farm.
Gillette said he had nearly given up looking into the story behind the "Jew huts" when David Pfeiffer, an archivist he had hired, found a box in the National Archives in Washington that contained records of Thalhimer's successful relocation of students from the Gross Breesen Agricultural Training Institute in Germany to a farm in Virginia that Thalhimer, who also was Jewish, had purchased for them.
Gillette, who was with Pfeiffer in the National Archives at the time, said the box was in a room as large as First Church Congregational's sanctuary, where Wednesday night's Holocaust commemoration took place, and was surrounded by countless other boxes. He said Pfeiffer told him that the box hadn't been opened in 70 years and that Gillette had a responsibility to tell the story of what Thalhimer did. "He said, `Every one of these boxes has a story to tell and no one comes down here to tell the story. You have a responsibility,' " Gillette said.
Thalhimer's attempt to bring the Jewish agricultural students from Germany to Virginia wasn't easy due to administrative hurdles that the U.S. State Department imposed, Gillette said. But he said Thalhimer, assisted by Dr. Curt Bondy, a social psychologist who was in charge of the Gross Breesen Agricultural Training Institute, eventually triumphed. "He triumphed not through legal persuasion alone, but skeptics and cynics came to trust the motives of this native Virginian," Gillette said. "They realized he was a man of integrity ... and would not give up."
"These young refugees escaped death and were transplanted to a rural Virginia farm," Gillette said. He said the refugees had been torn from their homes, country, families and friends, but "turned anger, bewilderment and fear into a vitality of hope."
Thalhimer's mission was shared by the Gross Breesen Agricultural Training Institute, which had been created to train Jewish adolescents in agriculture in the hope that countries would accept them for immigration, according to Gillette.
The Jewish teenagers that Thalhimer rescued from Germany built the "Jew huts" that a guest at the Hyde Farmlands Bed and Breakfast had asked about, Gillette said. Many of the former Gross Breesen students joined the U.S. Army during World War II to fight against the Germans and some liberated death camps, Gillette said.
Thalhimer's motivation in rescuing Jews came in 1930, when he and his family traveled to Europe to buy merchandise for Thalhimers, a department store chain he owned. The family became friends with a German couple who invited them to their home in Berlin, and Thalhimer one evening was standing by an open window when he heard "Brownshirts" drumming and yelling anti-Semitic slogans, Gillette said. Thalhimer was "frightened to his core," Gillette said, and turned to his wife and said, "It's time to go home."
Thalhimer, though, vowed to help Jews living in Germany and realized, Gillette said, that "the opposite of good is not evil, but indifference."
Through his research, which included interviews with several students Thalhimer had rescued, Gillette said he learned that 1930s Germany was not only a time of increasing ostracization of Jews, but also a "time of whispers."
To a child, whispers between parents about whether a family would survive can be better heard than if the parents talked at a normal volume, Gillette said. "Those kids were not ignorant about what was going on," he said.
In describing the plight of Jewish children in Germany in the 1930s, Gillette quoted Friedrich Borchardt, a board member of Gross Breesen who had immigrated to America: "If the future of adult Jews of Germany is hopeless, what shall we say of the future of Jewish children?"
On April 21, the significance of the farm that Thalhimer bought for the Gross Breesen students will be noted by a roadside marker, Gillette said. He said April 21 was "exactly 75 years to the day" from the date that Thalhimer took title to it.
The Torah, the holy book for Jews, is said by some to be written in white fire and black fire, Gillette said. The black fire is the text, and the white fire is the space between the text where the meaning of the text can be discovered. "The Holocaust has scrawled its graffiti on the wall of human history in huge black letters and black fire. It says, `Beware.' But in white fire is the word, `Learn,' " Gillette said.
Gillette also noted the power of words, saying the Holocaust began with "hateful words that bullied innocent and defenseless adults and children," and that people who witness bullying today should learn from the Holocaust and speak up for justice and in defense of victims. "Every individual can make a difference. Every little deed counts," he said.
The Rev. David Spollett, pastor of First Church Congregational, said the annual Holocaust Commemoration in Fairfield is "one of the most important annual occasions in the life of our town."
First Selectman Michael Tetreau read a town proclamation declaring April 7 to 14 as "Days of Remembrance in memory of the victims of the Holocaust and in tribute to those who help us to remember."
"We, the people of the town of Fairfield, should always remember the terrible events of the Holocaust and remain vigilant against hatred, persecution and tyranny," Tetreau said.
Wednesday night's event also featured the Fairfield County Children's Choir, which sang Z. Randall Stroope's "Inscription of Hope," a song based on a poem written on a wall in a basement in Germany where Jews were hiding from Nazis.
Sherri Steeneck, chairwoman of the Holocaust Commemoration Committee, said the Wednesday commemoration marked the first time that leaders in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths participated. "For this we should be thankful and hope it's another small step toward peace," she said.
Imam Nasif Muhammad from the Al-Aziz Islamic Center read from the Koran toward the end of the commemoration, saying God made people in different tribes and nations not so they would despise each other, but so they would learn from each other.