Exhibit details farm that helped Jews

Three who lived there in the 1930s attend opening at Va. Holocaust Museum

By JEFF E. SCHAPIRO

TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
In fleeing the Nazis, George Landecker veered through the tobacco belt of Southside Virginia. But his flight to freedom began at a farm near the Germany-Poland border.
Landecker, approaching his 90th birthday, was among 130 people who in the late 1930s spent part of their teenage years at Gross Breesen, a Jewish-run agricultural-training center.
At Gross Breesen — the subject of a Virginia Holocaust Museum exhibit that opened yesterday and will run for two months — Landecker and the others learned the skills that might make it easier to escape the doom enshrouding Europe and resettle, in safety, in the United States and other countries.
“The group is getting smaller,” said Landecker, who inspired the exhibit by Steve Strauss, a New York photographer-videographer. “We are all in our 80s and 90s.”
Now a retired dairyman from Barneveld, N.Y., north of Utica, Landecker was among three Gross Breesen alumni at yesterday’s opening in Richmond. Landecker, his thick hands resting on the hilt of his black cane, recalled in the guttural accent of his native East Prussia his often-perilous journey.
After Gross Breesen, Landecker was briefly held at the Buchenwald concentration camp. From there, Landecker went to Holland and, next, Hyde Park Farm in Nottoway County, owned by retailer William B. Thalhimer and his cousin Morton G. Thalhimer Sr., a real estate investor.
The Thalhimers envisioned Hyde Park Farm as a refuge for imperiled European Jews. To make it easier for the immigrants to qualify for U.S. residence, the Thalhimers gave them shares in the 1,000-acre farm, where they grew tobacco and raised poultry and dairy cows.
But it was at Gross Breesen that the Jews mastered the tasks that would shape their fate.
Strauss learned of Gross Breesen from a high school classmate in Lawrence, N.Y., the Long Island town in which he grew up. Many of the Gross Breesen teens went on, Strauss said, to “become overachievers because of the work ethic” instilled by Gross Breesen’s director, psychologist Curt Bondy.
Bondy, who had worked with prisoners, survived World War II as a professor at Richmond Professional Institute, antecedent to Virginia Commonwealth University. Bondy, who returned to Germany after the war, was a demanding, charismatic man.
Or as Anne Strauss, a former Gross Breesen resident who is not related to the documentarian, says on the exhibit video: “a personality you could like and hate at the same time.”
Those who emerged from Gross Breesen included artists, authors, foundation executives — and, in Landecker’s case, the head of a 200-acre dairy farm. They learned agriculture, Jewish and German culture, and, according to the exhibit video, the importance of “knowing life, knowing people.”

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or jschapiro@timesdispatch.com.