Posted on March 17th, 2016

Escape to Virginia: An Interview

Gillette-Bob-lower-res-407x250This morning I spoke on the phone with Bob Gillette, RJE, my predecessor and Educator Emeritus. He and his wife Marsha escaped from the Connecticut winters to Virginia over a decade ago and it was past time to catch up.

What are you doing with yourself these days?
There is life at the end of the tunnel for Jewish educators. Since leaving the field, I have had the great opportunity to write three books that have been published – two of which have an impact on the Jewish world.
I spent 10 years doing research for both books, but I have also found time to serve on the board of the Central Virginia Holocaust Education Foundation. This summer we are sponsoring a major teacher’s workshop for public school teachers at Lynchburg College.
Between research, writing and giving about 60 book talks for The Virginia Plan: William B Thalhimer and a Rescue From Nazi Germany (The History Press, 2011), my second book which tells a long forgotten story of the Shoah and rescue, I have met many people and listened to their stories.

I am now scheduling talks for my latest book, Escape to Virginia: From Nazi Germany to Thalhimer’s Farm, which came out in February. I am also very involved with the Southern Jewish Historical Society, and Marsha and I are exploring our new Southern Jewish roots. Being a Jew in the south is very different from the northeast!

The Virginia Plan and Escape to Virginia are both built around William B. Thalhimer, his farm in Virginia and his efforts to rescue young German Jews in the 1930’s. Tell me about the difference between the two books.

The first book, The Virginia Plan, is a narrative of the rescue by William B. Thalhimer of 25 young Jews from Nazi Germany. It follows his year plus battle with the U.S. Departments of State and Labor and reveals the restrictive policies surrounding the visa process.
All of the State Department documentation had been sealed in a box in the National Archives. No one even knew it was there until we found it after two years of searching. The book is based on primary sources; it is much more of an adult history.

Sounds like it was stored in the same place as the Ark of the Covenant!

Exactly! It felt that way to me. As for the second book, when I was giving talks about The Virginia Plan from Massachusetts to Florida, people asked me to write a version of the story for young people. That is how Escape to Virginia came to be. It is told from the perspective of two of the young refugees rescued by Thalhimer. It begins when they are expelled from the German public schools, and it follows them on their journey to freedom. It is creative history rather than historical fiction. Creative History – which is very popular today – entails primary research (everything is factual), but it is written in a narrative form and reads like fiction rather than a traditional history book.
How do you see this book being used?
A couple escapetovirginiaof public school systems have already accepted it into their curricula. I can see it being used in religious schools in middle school or high school. Adolescents can see themselves in this young man and young woman. The thrust or theme of the book is one of hope and courage.
I am in conversation with the American Hebrew Academy to include it in their Jewish studies and American history curricula. Much of the events take place right here on the farm in Virginia. Last June, Yad Vashem accepted Virginia Plan into their archive collection.
I am currently writing a teacher’s guide to Escape to Virginia which will be available on the web at no charge. As I write it, I am vicariously back in the class room. I spent my forty-year career simultaneously serving as a temple educator and a public high school teacher, and this process has taken me back to my core.
I wrote the book. I read the book. And now I am teaching the book. Three different perspectives. It has been an amazing journey. This spring, I will meet with some local middle school students who are reading the book right now. I cannot wait!

Escape to Virginia is available in trade paper from the History Press, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. It is also available from Amazon.com as an e-book on Kindle.

Ira J. Wise, RJE, is the Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut.