Fabled Fairfield teacher writes of unsung Holocaust heroism
German businessman Oskar Schindler is known the world over as an unlikely humanitarian, who turned his factory into a refuge for about 1,100 Jews, sparing those on his famed list from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
William B. Thalhimer, an American department store owner, had a list of his own, unknown until now. Proof of his heroic and persistent efforts to bring two dozen young Jewish students from Germany to a Virginia farm in the 1930s sat in a box in a cavernous room of boxes at the National Archives for decades until Fairfield native Robert H. Gillette's persistence brought Thalhimer's story to light.
Gillette, who taught for many years in Fairfield high schools, documents Thalhimer's rescue mission, creation of a safe haven on the farm and the struggle of the refugees to start a new life in rural America in his new book, "The Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer and a Rescue from Nazi Germany" (The History Press, 2011).
Gillette, who relocated to Lynchburg, Va., with his wife Marsha in 2004, appeared Wednesday at the newly opened Fairfield University Bookstore to discuss the story of courage, patience and hope on two continents. He is the first author to speak at the new store at the former Borders site downtown, which the university opened earlier this month.
His first book, "A Paddler's Guide to Prince Edward Island," was published in 2006.
He characterized his latest book as "a historical analysis of immigration history of this country; not our shining moment." Back in the 1930s, Gillette said about 60 percent of the U.S. population was anti-Semitic and the State Department was slow to issue visas to Jews, "even as the Nazi noose became tighter and tighter."
"No one can say we didn't know what was going on in Germany," said Gillette, who told the audience of about 100 people that his five years of research uncovered news clippings with undeniable front page headlines.
Gillette said Thalhimer tried for 15 months to work with the State Department to bring the students to U.S. soil. Initially, the State Department was "a topography of exclusion," but eventually Thalhimer wore down officials there and won their confidence.
"William Thalhimer did not give up. He would not give up on those kids," said Gillette, who attended Grasmere School and Roger Ludlowe High School (Class of 1955), where he was an outstanding athlete as well as president of the student council and the senior class.
Gillette taught English at Andrew Warde High School and Fairfield High School for 30 years until retiring in 1999. During that time, he received numerous awards, including Teacher of the Year three times. He also served as the director of Religious Education at Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport for 27 years, adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Education & Allied Professions at Fairfield University and lecturer at Sacred Heart University.
Although Gillette appeared at the bookstore to discuss his new book, the event became a sort of "This is Your Life" moment with many classmates, friends and former students populating the audience.
Leann Ratner, of Fairfield, a graduate of Fairfield High School who did not have Gillette as a teacher but was inspired by his example, said his book is really a metaphor for his own life.
"I thought the story was fascinating," she said. "There's probably thousands of stories out there. It makes you stop and think (about other unsung heroes). If you can make a difference in one person's life, you can consider yourself successful and fulfilled.
"It's kind of Mr. Gillette's life, too. There are so many people here in Fairfield that he touched who came to hear him speak."
"You're never too old to get something out of a Bob Gillette lecture. It makes me feel old and it makes me feel young again," said Jeff Peterson of Fairfield, who told Gillette, "Sitting in the audience was like sitting back in your class."
Betsy Meiman Parker, now a Milford resident, said Gillette enriched many lives as evidenced by the response she got when she posted her plans to attend his lecture on her Facebook page 24 hours before it took place. Meiman Parker received two pages worth of messages from Gillette's former students from as far away as Spain and Norway.
One former student, now living in Florida, told Meiman Parker, "Please tell him I said hello and good luck. What an amazing man, still the best teacher I ever had, when I needed a good teacher the most. That guy changed my life. ... If you have a chance, tell him I said Thank You for teaching me to read between the lines."
Gillette recounted boyhood memories growing up near the Fairfield University campus and playing for his two coaches, Fernand "Fern" Tetreau -- the father of newly elected First Selectman Mike Tetreau -- and Bob Seirup, who were in the audience Wednesday. He said both men influenced him and his teammates as students and as players. From Tetreau, he said he learned "playing hard and playing fair and never swearing."
Gillette said he felt like "a taproot going into this very soil of Fairfield."
After the lecture, Gillette caught up with former students and classmates, including Fire Chief Richard Felner and the younger Tetreau. He not only autographed numerous books, but took the time to write a personal message in each.
"Bob was always a gentleman, well-spoken," Felner said. "He was a leader and he's still a leader. I'm overwhelmed that he's here."
Elaine Bowman, program manager of the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies at Fairfield University, said officials at the center were pleased to have sponsored the first event at the bookstore, along with Congregation B'nai Israel, especially with Gillette as the guest speaker discussing such a courageous story.