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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Lest We Forget: An interview with Holocaust survivor Jay Ipson

Hello Gentle Readers,

Today we celebrate VE Day, the end of the European section of World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Recently, I was able to attend an educational session hosted by Jay Ipson, Holocaust survivor and founder of the Virginia Holocaust Museum. I asked if he'd be willing to do an interview for the blog, and he was more then happy.

Please join me in welcoming Mr. Ipson!

1)  Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in a hospital in Kovno (Russian) Kaunas (Lithuanian) Kovneh (Yiddish) on June 5th 1935 to Israel & Eta Ipp (here after known as Israel and Edna Ipson).  My given name at birth was Yacob Ipp.  My Father (B"z") was a lawyer, but in 1938 the Lithuania Government adapted the Nuremberg Laws, and Jews in Lithuania as in Germany from 1933, could no longer practice law.  My Mother was a sales person in a fashion store.  

My Father used to race motorcycles with a motorcycle club of which he was the secretary -  he was right good as we had a showcase full of trophy's that he won.  Since he could no longer practice law, he had to come up with a way to make a living.  At that time, Lithuania was a developing country, so he went into the Motorcycle and pape clipr and thumb tack business.  The Russians invaded and took it all.  Then the Germans invaded and they with our Lithuanian neighbors forced us into a Ghetto and started killing.  

We escaped first from the Ghetto that in 1943 became a concentration camp, and were in hiding for 9 months living under ground for six months, and we were liberated by the Russians, escaped a second time and made our way to Warsaw Poland.  On the way I almost drowned when I fell through the ice.  We made our way to Munchen, Germany, and finally to the United States, on June 12th 1947.  

I started school in the 6th grade without any prior education.  After a year we started a business - a service station where my Mother pumped gas and wiped windshields and Dad greased cars and changed oil. Aafter school I would come to work as well.  They worked from 6a.m. till 11p.m. seven days a week.  Ultimately this beginning led to three auto parts stores and machine shop and 38 employees. In 1954 I joined the Army Reserve, with the 2079th JAGC detachment of the 80th Division, Service Co. I served as an instructor, long story.

2)  Your family were originally from Lithuania? How long had they been there prior to the Nazi invasion? How long did your family remain at the Kovno ghetto before escaping?

To the best of my knowledge they were there for generations, ever since Vitas the Great invited the Jews to come to Lithuania in the 1600's.  We were in the Ghetto that became a Concentration Camp from August 1941 - November 1943 when we escaped.

They actually cut the wire. 
But this photo was too good to pass up.

3)  You served in the armed forces, correct? What made you decide to serve your adopted country?

I realized that I was not a sheep that would go to the slaughter.  Not only did I want to defend this country from Communism, but I also wanted to learn how to better defend myself and protect my family, and that in the military you get the best education if you take advantage of it.

4)   Could you tell us more about your efforts in raising awareness and teaching others about the Holocaust?

A calamity such as the Holocaust can happen anywhere anytime under the right circumstances.  We need to learn the signs and use our power to vote, and not give up our right to defend our family and friends.  

5)   What made you decide to found a Holocaust museum in Virginia?

I was talked into establishing the Virginia Holocaust Museum by a couple of friends and with the encouragement of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

6)  What made you decide to call your lecture “The Wrench That Saved A Family”?

27,000 of us were lined up in front of a SS Sgt. Rauca.  He asked what is your profession.  He sent all intellectuals to the left and they were executed.  10,500, 4,226 children.  When my Fathers turn came, he lied and said he was a car mechanic.  He could not drive a nail straight.  That saved our life's that night.  When they came for him to fix a car, he did not know what size wrench to ask for, so with an adjustable, he fixed it.  That ultimately saved us.

7)    Can you tell us more about “Lawyers Without Rights”?

Aaron Schildhaus of Washington, D.C., encountered some of those stories in September, 2009, shortly after ending his term as chair of the ABA Section of International Law.  He was in Berlin for the 50th anniversary of the German Federal Bar when he visited an exhibit presented by the bar.  "Lawyers Without Rights:  Jewish Lawyers in Germany Under the Third Reich" depicted the collapse of a professional community under Nazi persecution.  Since the exhibit was created more than a decade ago, it has been presented in more than 80 cities, mostly in Europe  It is now traveling in the United States.  I brought it to Richmond and it included a panel with my Fathers experiences as a Jewish Lawyer in Lithuania.

8)     In addition to your work as a Holocaust History Lecturer, you’re also a lover of all things planes. What’s your favorite plane? What plane was the most fun to fly? 

Here I have a few interesting stories; I flew a Lear Jet up to 51,000 ft and saw the curvature of the earth, but my most memorable was when the Air Force sent me to Israel on a special good will exchange in 1975.  

Curvature of the Earth as seen from 50,000 feet

At that time Israel had captured the Sinai and I along with other officers were taken on a tour of Mt Sinai, to show us Santa Catherina Monastery.  

After our visit, they came to pick us up with a French Nord Atlas model 2501, similar to our C130.  I was sittting in the mid section looking at a group of beautiful Israeli Air Force Girls, when a call came from the intercom asking me to come up front.  An Israeli Air force instructor pilot asked me if I would like to see.  I replied, "No thank you I have seen all this before, show it to some of the girls in the back."  He realized that he used the wrong terminology, and said, "Would you like to fly?"  Now that is a different story.  I got in the left seat -  the command pilots seat.  They were not afraid as the co-pilot could easily override me, if it became necessary.  

 The French Nord Atlas cockpit

The Instructor Pilot told me that we were under radar control at all times, even though the skies were clear with unlimited visibility.  A slight drift and you would be over enemy territory.  That  could get you shot down, and start a war.  He said that the controller would speak to me in Hebrew to tell me my instrument setting, but not to worry, that the co-pilot would set my instrument for me.  I said OK and proceeded to prepare for my take off instructions.  The controller called out my altimeter setting and heading, in Hebrew.  I set my altimeter and started my take off roll.  The co-pilot set his instruments, and got ready to set mine, when he noticed that they were already set.  He asked in Hebrew, the Instructor Pilot if he set my Instruments.  The guy said no, he then asked me who set your instrument? "I did, is there a problem?"  "No", he said, "but how did you know?" " I am Jewish and I understand some Hebrew."  When I landed the crew carried me off the plane on their shoulders.  They have shown that courtesy to other  American visitors, but never met one that could fly the plane and set the instruments.  Most just sit there.  The military L19, or Cessna 305 tail drag-er.  It was used in Korea as an observer plane and emergency stretcher evacuation air craft for critically injured.

The L-19 Tail Dragger

9)    What do you think would surprise people most about you?

My broad range of knowledge and community involvement

 NOTE: And from having met the man
I'd say his dry sense of humor. 
The man owned the room. 

10)    What do you hope those who attend your lectures and visit your museum take away from their experience?

That they will become better neighbors, be up standers and not by standers.

 If you ever get the chance, please look up the story of Nicholas Winton
He was an up stander. And a great neighbor.

Jay Ipson is on Facebook, and his museum can be found here. If you'd like to contact Mr. Ipson, he can be reached here.

Thank you so much for sharing this event, and please never forget!

Jay Mims writes books, blogs, and lives with The Mimsus, a passive aggressive Dalek named Steve, and a cat named Eartha Kitty. Jay is far funnier on Facebook then in real life. He is terrible at Twitter.


  1. Awesome, I love this interview.

  2. Me too! Thank you Mr. Ipson for doing this interview and telling your story :)

    1. I really am grateful for the opportunity to share this story!

  3. Such an awesome man!! Thanks so much for introducing us. Higs to Mr. Ipson for being brave and for sharing his story!

  4. Such an amazing story. Thank you for sharing.