January

January 12, Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt

Saving a Story

Growing up, all I knew about Hyde Farm was that my great-grandfather brought over dozens of German Jewish teenagers to live there, in the boonies of rural Virginia, during the Holocaust. The details we knew were sparse and unusual: They raised chickens there. My great-grandmother gave her piano to the farm as a gift. When Hyde Farm closed, some of the teens became U.S. citizens and fought against the Nazis. Gramps was disappointed the farm wasn’t more successful, saving even more lives. He rarely talked about it during his lifetime, so only the bare bones of the story were passed down through our family.

In 2004, Dad took our family to visit Hyde Farm and attend a reunion of some of the Holocaust survivors who had lived there as teenagers. “Your great-grandfather saved my life,” two elderly gentlemen, Hans Georg Hirsch and Ernst Cramer, both told me.

There is a Jewish teaching that “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Suddenly, I realized the power of what Gramps had done. He had saved the entire world for Hans Georg and Ernst and many others.

Although at the time I was writing Finding Thalhimers about my father’s family and their department store, I could only devote a portion of my time to researching and telling the Hyde Farm story. It pained me that I knew so little, and the newspaper coverage of it was inconsistent.

When I was nine months pregnant with my first child – overwhelmed with the prospects of writing a book, continuing to work, and raising a child – I received a voicemail from the Virginia Holocaust Museum saying someone named Bob Gillette wanted to meet with Dad and me. So, we set up an appointment.

I eased my pregnant body into a chair and listened as Mr. Gillette, a lifelong educator, told us that he’d heard about a waitress at a bed-and-breakfast in rural Virginia mentioning “the Jew huts” outside. He discovered that the bed-and-breakfast was Hyde Farm, which led him to the story about Gramps, which led him to us. Fascinated and intrigued, he wanted to research and possibly write a book about the story.

At once, I felt relief, inspiration, and immeasurable gratitude. In painstakingly researching and writing The Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer & a Rescue from Nazi Germany, Mr. Gillette did more than write a book. He saved a story. And in my mind, saving a story about saving lives has the power to save the entire world. Thank you from the bottom of my soul, Bob Gillette.

–Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt

Richmond, Virginia

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