RICHMOND, Va. — Jay Ipson’s house off Staple Mill Road in Richmond stands 4,500 miles away from Lithuania and light years from World War II.
But the Holocaust survivor decorates the interior as a shrine to remember one of the darkest periods in human history.
You could understand if Ipson wanted to forget, but the 87-year-old survivor embraces his unsettling past.
“It was always troublesome being Jewish in Lithuania,” Ipson said.
While Ipson may struggle with his voice these days, his message is clear.
“We were put in a ghetto,” he said. “And everything we had of value they took away. It was a barbed wire compound. Inside were Jewish police. Outside were Lithuanian police.”
In 1941, a six-year-old Ipson, his parents, and thousands of fellow Jews were confined to an area teeming with armed guards. Coming and going was not an option. Thousands of people did not survive.
“They started the selection of who was going to live and who was going to die,” Ipson said.
His father, an attorney, lied about his profession. The decision most likely saved his life.
“Those that went to the right survived,” Ipson said. “Those that went to the left were taken and executed.”
In 1943, Ipson’s family broke out.
A farmer helped them hide.
“I was the first one to escape through the barbed wire,” he said.
Ipson and his relatives endured unimaginable conditions in an underground hole for six months.
“We had lice and mice. It smelled like dirt and pee,” Ipson described. “We went in a bucket.”
Miraculously, the family survived.
After the war in 1947, the Ipsons eventually reached Richmond where his mother’s relatives lived and worked.
“Well it was the beginning of a new life,” he explained.
The Ipsons flourished, opening an auto parts store.
Ipson joined the U.S. military and became a pilot.
“There is not a way that I could return that privilege that this country has granted me and my family,” he said.
One of Jay Ipson’s crowning achievements happened 20 years ago.
He co-founded the Virginia Holocaust Museum on East Cary Street in 2003.
Many of the artifacts on display came from his own collection.
In a controversial move, the board of directors at the Virginia Holocaust Museum ousted Ipson as executive director after differing opinions about the direction of the landmark.
Elly Ipson, Jay’s wife of 63 years, said her husband remains resolute.
“He doesn’t want to forget because he doesn’t want it to happen again,” she explained. “Absolutely marvelous. I don’t think it can be done by too many people.”
Ester Ipson-Minter admires her father’s tenacity and willingness to share his painful story.
“Everything he went through, he still has no hate. He wants everybody to get along,” said Ester. “This is one thing he’ll never forget no matter what else happens in his world and his life. He’ll never forget the Holocaust.”
Jay Ipson is a man on a mission. Determined to educate and remember.
“I devoted my life to it. Because future generations are not going to know,” he said. “That is the story of the Holocaust. We’re all the same. God made us in his image.”
Jay Ipson used to deliver speeches to student groups and civic organizations, but he has passed the baton to his grandson Benjamin who now shares his grandfather’s story of survival.
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