Robert Gillette Reflects on The Power of Hope

Bridgewater College Hosts Speaker in Honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day


Bridgewater College

Educator and author Robert Gillette presented his research on William B. Thalhimer, who rescued Jewish teenagers from Nazi Germany by giving them a safe haven in Virginia.

Cassidy Wagoner, Staff Writer

Bridgewater, Va. – Scholar and author Robert Gillette spoke to Bridgewater College on Tuesday evening, Jan. 26, in honor of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day — which is Jan. 27. 

Gillette is a retired educator and author of two books that have told the story of German Jewish teenagers escaping to Virginia during the Holocaust. Those two books are The Virginia Plan and Escape to Virginia.

Gillette presented his research on the Richmond, Virginia department store owner William B. Thalhimer and the safe haven he created on a farm in Burkeville, Virginia. 

Gillette became intrigued with William B. Thalhimer’s story, but was running out of avenues for information. He was just about to give up before going to the National Archives in College Park, Md. 

Gillette gained access to Thalhimer’s documents with the State Department, which was a major breakthrough for the research project. 

In the late 1930s, Thalhimer rescued 25 German Jewish teenagers. Thalhimer brought these teenagers over from Germany to work on his property — Hyde Farmlands. This was the justification Thalhimer used with the State Department to rescue the teenagers from Nazi Germany. 

It had taken Thalhimer 14 months of struggling with the State Department to finally get a handshake of agreement that allowed him to bring these young people to Virginia. 

When the teenagers came to Hyde Farmlands, they were taught how to do many things. The farm was a form of education for them. They stayed there and worked for many years until it closed in 1941 due to economic issues. 

After Hyde Farmlands closed, the Jewish teenagers did several different things. Some of the teenagers went into the military and some moved back to Germany years later to hopefully reunite with family. 

Gillette believes that Thalhimer’s actions and moral courage have much to tell us today. Thalhimer’s work helped those who did not have a voice — which was something Gillette said he hoped for future generations. 

“Every individual can make a difference,” said Gillette. “Every act of empathy and kindness can make a difference.”

“Hope and courage are the right and left hand of the human spirit,” said Gillette. “The human spirit that keeps suffering people going. That keeps us all going. That is what I hope all of my books are truly about.” 

Gillette continues to keep in touch with the Thalhimer family. He has created close relationships with the families of those German Jewish teenagers as well. 

 Assistant Professor of History Martin Kalb coordinated the virtual event. Kalb received word of Gillette from another Holocaust educator in Staunton, Virginia — Jennifer Goss. 

Kalb has worked to host several speakers and events for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. There has been a speaker in honor of this day for the past four years at Bridgewater College. 

In previous years, speakers came to campus and were part of an in-person event; however, due to the pandemic, the event was held virtually.

“These stories and topics are close to my heart,” Kalb said. “I am a historian and I follow the idea that one learns from the past to prevent certain dynamics from happening in the present or future.”