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Virginia’s hidden history: Hyde Park Farm & the Holocaust

Hyde Park Farm Hidden History Thalhimers
An agricultural student at Hyde Park Farm. (Image courtesy of the Virginia Holocaust Museum.)

What part did the Commonwealth play in the Holocaust? 

The recent PBS documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust from filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, explores America’s response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the twentieth century. 

But what about Virginia? 

Hidden History with Brian Bullock highlights one Virginian’s response to the growing danger Jewish families experienced in Germany during the 1930s.  Watch the video below.

Jewish businessman William B. Thalhimer owned a string of premier department stores throughout Richmond that carried his family name. In 1930, Thalhimer traveled to Germany on a buying trip with his wife and two sons. While there, Thalhimer witnessed a violent altercation involving the brownshirts — members of the antisemitic Sturmabteilung (Assault Division), a paramilitary group whose aggressive methods aided in the rise of Adolph Hitler.  

According to Bob Gillette, historian and author of Escape to Virginia: From Nazi Germany to Thalhimer’s Farm, watching the brownshirts’ encounter disturbed and frightened Thalhimer — and spurred him to action.  

Thalhimer began working to ensure European Jewish survival. His deep involvement in this mission led him to head up the U.S. committee to resettle German Jewish refugees. But he met with resistance. At the time, the United States limited German Jewish immigration with restrictive quotas, labeling many immigrants “likely to become a public charge” — or unable to sustain themselves. 

To prevent these refugees from being labeled LPC, Thalhimer purchased Hyde Park Farm, an 863-acre farm in Burkeville. By providing shares of the farm to prospective immigrants, Thalhimer made them landowners and thereby circumvented immigration quotas. Once the plan was in place, he connected with Gross-Breesen, a German agricultural institute for Jewish teenagers.  

Students at Gross-Breesen were trained in cutting-edge farming techniques with the hope that their skills and education would be attractive to countries where they could safely live. After a 14-month struggle with the U.S. State Department, Thalhimer secured 25 visas for students from Gross-Breesen to emigrate to Hyde Park Farm. 

Once on the farm, the first students cleared fields, grew vegetables, built structures and raised farm animals. Working from this initial success, Thalhimer petitioned the State Department to bring more German Jewish youth to Virginia. 

“But then he saw no more refugees,” said Gillette. “Our shores were closed. No one could get out. And that’s when he suffered a heart attack.” 

In 1941, two things happened: Germany stripped German Jews living outside their territory of their nationality and all U.S. diplomatic embassies and consulates in Germany and occupied Europe closed, effectively halting all emigration.  

With Thalhimer in poor health and no more refugees, Hyde Park Farm closed. The students, all close to early adulthood, found opportunities in college or gainful employment throughout Virginia, so they were not required to leave. When the U.S. entered World War II a few months later, the male students joined the Army, several becoming “Richie Boys.” 

“[Richie Boys] were the elite intelligence officers attached to all the regiments because they could speak German, they knew German culture,” said Gillette. “They would be the ones who interrogated captured German soldiers. They would be the ones negotiating surrender.” 

When asked how Thalhimer’s story is relevant today, Gillette offered a wry smile. 

“That’s the big question. I ask myself, ‘What would Thalhimer think if he heard and saw Charlottesville or the storming of the Capitol?’ How traumatized would he be, again?” he asked. 

“I think his legacy is a legacy of courage and persistence, resiliency, hope,” said Gillette. “That’s Thalhimer’s moral legacy.” 

Learn more about Hyde Park Farm by watching Hidden History with Brian Bullock on Facebook or YouTube. Look for more Hidden History episodes in the coming months. 

In addition, VPM and the Virginia Holocaust Museum will host a screening of The U.S. and the Holocaust, as well as a panel discussion on the history of Virginia’s response to the Holocaust — including Thalhimer’s activism — and how the lessons of our involvement reverberate today. Register online for this free event.