Jay Ipson had to count lice to entertain himself during the six months of his childhood he spent in a cramped underground room with a dozen other Jewish family members. He was one of the few Lithuanian Jews to make it out of the Holocaust alive.
With decade-high hate crime rates in 2017 and October’s synagogue shooting demonstrating anti-Semitic attitudes, the Holocaust’s near-destruction of an entire generation of European Jews becomes more prominent in the modern political landscape.
In May 1997, Ipson co-founded the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond. The museum features recreations of his memories of the Holocaust and important events that transpired during and after World War II. Ipson said watching the museum grow in popularity was “very gratifying.”
In 1941, Ipson and his family were forced into the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania. Later that year, 27,000 people were herded into a huge field inside the ghetto. Through a selection process, more than 10,000 people were executed. Ipson’s father lied, saying he was a car mechanic and was taken to an airport to fix a vehicle where he crossed paths with a farmer he knew. The pair worked to plan his family’s escape.
Two years later, just before Ipson and his family escaped, the Kovno Ghetto was transitioned into the Kovno Concentration Camp.
Ipson recalled the night in November 1943 when he and his parents escaped Kovno through a cut in the wire fence. Ipson ran across the street to hide behind the fence of another house.
“I was scared shitless,” Ipson said. “I couldn’t say a word. It was dark. It was cold. I huddled behind a fence for about 45 minutes before my mother came to get me. That seemed like an eternity.”
Ipson and his family walked in the freezing Lithuanian cold to a farmer waiting to take them away in a wagon full of straw. They went to another farmer’s property, which would become their new home for the next nine months.
For three months, they hid in the upper level of a barn. During that time, Ipson’s father dug an underground tunnel from a potato hole in nearby woods. That hole tunneled to a bunker the size of a small room, where Ipson and a dozen other family members hid for the latter six months of their stay.
“For some reason or another, God gave me the strength and the knowledge to understand what was going on,” Ipson said. “I knew exactly the ramifications if I spoke too loud or tried to do something. Survival is something that you learn quickly. You either do or you become extinct.”
The Soviet Union — already betrayed by the Germans — liberated the area in 1944. As soon as they were freed, Ipson and his family went back to the concentration camp to see if anything or anyone from his father’s family was still there.
When they arrived back to Kovno, the camp had already been destroyed by the Germans and Lithuanians. Ipson said the soldiers threw grenades into or burned down the houses, killing the remaining Jews in the camp. When Ipson and his father returned to the camp, it was still burning.
His father knew of a bunker hidden under a house in the ghetto. If any of his family had made it, that is where they would have been, but inside the destroyed bunker was the body of a woman charred so badly it was unrecognizable. On the ground was a ration card with Ipson’s aunt’s name on it. It was unclear whether the body was his aunt’s.
Even after returning to their home, the war and its dangers weren’t over.
“A bomb actually was dropped in our yard, and the shrapnel and everything destroyed my bed,” Ipson said. “Had I gone to bed on time that night instead of hanging out with the adults because I was nosy, I would have been dead.”
Ipson said he and his family ended up in the U.S. because someone reported his father for giving a bonus to women working for him at an amber jewelry plant — which was illegal under Soviet laws. He was declared an “enemy of the Soviet Republic.”
“By that night, [The People’s Commissariat for State Security] would come and take you and ship you off to Siberia,” Ipson said. “As soon as he came home, he told my mother ‘grab your backpack, put in what you can, we’re leaving immediately.’”
They escaped before the evening and made it through Poland. However, they were stopped at the Czechoslovakian border and had to walk through waist-high snow to make it to the American zone in Germany.
Ipson’s family decided to immigrate to America because his mother had a sister and aunt who lived in Richmond. After staying in Munich for two years, in 1947, they made it through immigration services and finally came to the U.S.
Once in Virginia, Ipson graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and attended the University of Richmond. He joined the Army Reserve in 1954 and served as a typing instructor in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps for eight years. Ipson said he joined the army to give back to the country that took him in.
“If I can help this country for me being here, I’m going to join the military,” Ipson said. “I’m going to learn how to fight, I’m going to learn how to defend myself, and I’m going to pay back this country if this is where they need me.”
Ipson remembered when he visited Canada in 1959 with his now-wife to apply for a work permit. When he appeared in front of the government officials, one of them stereotyped him and said he must have lived a failed life in the U.S.
“[The government official] said to me ‘You Jews are all alike. You come to Canada for a handout,” Ipson said. “I said ‘Take my papers and shove it up your ass. At 6:30 in the morning, I’m gonna be across Rouses Point back in the United States where I belong.’”
Ipson’s teaching experience led him to volunteer for the Anti-Defamation League in the 1990s, where he gave talks in cases of anti-Semitic behavior to try to change people’s outlooks.
This eventually led to Ipson telling his story to people around the country. He teaches about the Holocaust from local schools to military bases, and said the “two-way conversation” in his lessons makes them unique.
His lessons are still relevant today — Neo-Nazi organizations have been on the rise across the globe. Lithuania — where a majority of the Jewish population in the 1940s was killed in the Holocaust — has “the most extensive demonstrations of neo-Nazism,” according to Ipson’s website.
Ipson also said, through his time of giving student lectures, he has learned a staggering number of young people admit they are bullies — most of the time learning the behavior from home. Ipson said the biggest takeaway he wants for students is to realize “we are all the same,” and that mentality will help stop hateful behavior.
“If it hurts you, it hurts the guy you’re picking on,” Ipson said. “Doesn’t matter what color he is, doesn’t matter what religion he is … we are all the same, we all bleed red. When we understand that, and forget about greed and accept need, then we’ll do okay.”