April 23, 2009

Holocaust Remembrance touches Virginia National Guard

By Sgt. Andrew H. Owen
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

FORT PICKETT, Va.—Soldiers and Airmen of the Virginia National Guard came together at Fort Pickett April 15 to pay remembrance to those who suffered during the Holocaust through prayer, reflection and the words of a special guest speaker.

  Jay Ipson

Jay Ipson, a Holocaust survivor, speaks to an audience of Virginia Guardsmen about his experiences as a Jew during the Holocaust. (Photo by Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Approximately 35 Soldiers and Airmen attended the Holocaust Days of Remembrance program, presented by the Virginia National Guard Equal Employment Office, at building 1700 on Fort Pickett to witness the words of a very special guest speaker, Jay Ipson, who spoke first-hand of the atrocities inflicted on the Jewish people of Europe during the middle of the 20th century.

Ipson was born to a Jewish family in Lithuania in 1935, two years after the Nazi party took control of Germany and began its efforts to gain control over the rest of Europe. By 1941, he and his family were placed in a ghetto, and later a concentration camp, where they remained until their escape in 1943.

Before being placed in the Lithuanian ghetto, his family was witness to the hatred of men.

“Our neighbors started dragging Jews in the streets and killing them, with axes, with clubs,” said Ipson. “The Lithuanian Defense Force, as you would call them, were applauding and singing the Lithuanian National Anthem while they were watching the massacre of their neighbors.”

While recounting the atrocities and the tale of his survival through stories and a slideshow, Ipson asked the audience, “What is the difference between a ghetto and a concentration camp?” He answered his own question stating, “There is none. They starve you in both. They work you in both. They kill you in both.”

  2009 Holocaust Days of Remembrance

A basket of sandwiches at the Holocaust Days of Remembrance Program stand to remind viewers of the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. The sandwiches were prepared by Air Force Master Sgt. Ann Bey, a human resources sergeant in the Virginia Guard. (Photo by Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

“Most people think a concentration camp is an extermination camp like Auschwitz,” said Ipson. “Auschwitz was an extermination camp where they brought you strictly there to get you in the chambers and get rid of you. A ghetto is for the local populous.”

At a field in Lithuania, a sergeant asked everyone, “What is your profession, damn Jew?” according to Ipson. Ipson said, “If you were a white collar worker, such as a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, a Rabbi, a teacher, you and your whole family went to the ninth fort. And in one night, 10,500 men, women and children were executed.”

“They executed so many of them they couldn’t bury them. They took railroad ties, laid them between, built a bonfire to burn the bodies.”

According to Ipson’s account, they executed 4,226 children that night.

He told of how his father had lied about his profession to save himself and his family from the selection. His father had told the sergeant that he was a car mechanic, despite not being able to drive a screw, according to Ipson.

In 1943, after the ghetto had been converted to a concentration camp, in the middle of a November night, his father cut the wires of the fence while the guard was on his patrol. Jay was instructed to go through the hole, run across the street and lie down in a yard.

After what seemed like an eternity to Jay, he was joined by his mother. In silence the two huddled until they were eventually met by his father.

The family made their way several blocks to where they were met by a farmer and his cart. The farmer had arranged to meet them there to smuggle them to safety.

Jay hid underneath the straw of the cart while they travelled the 45 km to the farmer’s home. “I tell everyone, it was my first straw ride,” he said.

While in hiding on the farm his father built a tunnel underground with a nine foot by 12 foot hiding place with an additional escape tunnel. The family stayed in hiding on the farmer’s land for nearly 15 months. Nine months above the barn and sixth months underground. They stayed there until they were liberated by the Russians.

After his family was eventually freed, Jay moved to Richmond, Va., were he went to school at the University of Richmond. Jay later became a colonel in the Virginia Defense Force and was an aviation brigade commander. He has over 3,800 hours as pilot-in-command, has served as director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum and was once even a judge for the Miss Universe Pageant.

"I believe it is vital to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust because it serves as a reminder of what happens to people when prejudice, hatred and discrimination reign in what was once considered a civilized society," said Air Force Capt. Antoinette Allen, state EEO manager. “While our goal is to educate the Soldiers and Airmen during these cultural observances they also give each individual an opportunity to examine their own beliefs and actions.”

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