Jay Ipson, a Holocaust survivor of the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania was a featured speaker at a remembrance reception for Yom Hashoah Monday, April 8 at Old Dominion University.
The event was one of six scheduled events during ODU’s Peace Week. Yom HaShoah is the Holocaust Day of Remembrance and the event was aimed to educate people about the history of what transpired in an effort to prevent future genocides.
Ispon was just six years old in 1941 when the Nazis rose to power in Europe. This reality began a period of extermination of the Jews that resulted in more than six million deaths, including 1.5 million children by the end of World War II.
He discussed the danger he witnessed around him and the turmoil that ensued.
“They [the Nazis] wanted to deport 5,000 Jews to make room in Lithuania. They started rounding people up in the street and when they didn’t have that number [they were looking for], they went house to house,” Ipson said to the crowd.
“At one point, Hitler didn’t even want to kill the Jews. He just wanted to rid Germany of them,” he said, “the Reich Vice-Chancellor of Germany signed an agreement for mutual support [of the plan].”
“Every step of Lithuania is covered with Jewish blood,” Ipson said. He then explained the difference between a “ghetto” and “concentration camp.”
He said that they are both the same, except that a ghetto was a segregated neighborhood for the local population, whereas Nazis sent people from all over to concentration camps. There the Nazis starved, worked and then killed the Jews, according to Ipson.
Ipson then told the story of how he was able to escape prison in 1943 with his parents. Ipson and his family hid in bunkers below a potato field and stayed there until the Russians soldiers liberated them in 1944. The Traiki area of the hiding place was dark and discreet. He learned addition by counting the lice that covered his body. They hid under the field for six months, never seeing daylight. Soon after their escape, they went back to the ghetto for fear of leaving some family members behind.
He eventually immigrated to the United States with his parents and continued to educate the public about the Holocaust alongside his father. These lessons led to the founding and establishment of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in 1997. Executive Director of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel Rabbi Gershon Litt spoke briefly afterwards and said, “the importance of Yom HaShoah is to think, recall and remember,” and also to, “inspire and give strength to Jewish people.”
“The Jewish people were not broken,” Litt said of the experience’s impact, “we are alive. Today is a day of remembrance, but also to look into the future and realize what we have.”
PTA president of the TC School Shari Berman added that it was important for students to hear from a survivor.
“To hear firsthand really is the best way for the kids to learn about the Holocaust,” Berman said.
About 60 people were in attendance for the mid-day program, including eight students from the Toras Chaim public school in Portsmouth and another 14 from Bina High School in Norfolk. Also in attendance was the Office of Intercultural Relations and Ipson’s grandson Ben Ipson.
The event lasted from 12 p.m. to 1:30pm with an open discussion and Ipson also answered questions from the audience after his presentation.
By Brian Jerry