“Delayed Pilgrims”: Richmond Virginia’s German Jewish Community:
Insights into American Immigration and Community Building
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Jews fortunate enough to flee Nazi Germany and able to enter the United States, would set about rebuilding their lives, establishing themselves financially and seeking to create for themselves and their families alternative communities in their adopted America. Such was the case for some 100-immigrant families who arrived in Richmond Virginia just prior to the Second World War.
One needs to put into historic context this unique American Jewish story, especially as it would play out in the 1940’s in Richmond Virginia, the home of the Confederacy. This bastion of the “old order” South meant that many of its citizens were initially uncomfortable in welcoming “newcomers” into their midst. This notion would carry over as well to the “old timers” within the Jewish community, especially among the “our crowd” remnants of Beth Ahabah, the community’s oldest congregation, who were unsettled by the presence of these “refugees.”
Following the war the “DP’s” (displaced persons), who had survived the death camps of Europe, would become part of these “new Americans.” And so it was in Richmond Virginia, where in 1947 my father along with a group of some fifteen other “newcomers” would organize “the New American Jewish Club.” In November of that year, the first membership roster would be posted, listing some 63 men and 5 widowed or single women (representing households consisting of 110-120 individuals).
Similar to the earlier “Landsmanschaftn” created by Eastern European Jews, the New American Jewish Club adapted some of the key elements of this earlier organizing model.
As early as 1892 there were 87 Eastern European landsmanshaftn, and by 1910 there were more than 2,000, representing over 100 European cities and towns and embracing virtually every Jewish family in New York City… All maintained a continuation of important communal services, such as burial arrangements and poor relief, as well as a context for a shared expression of nostalgia. (www.myjewishlearning.com/article/landsmanshaftn/)
In addition to creating this social network in Richmond where they shared holidays and festivals, produced theatre, and were able to share their unique yet often tragic stories with a circle of fellow immigrants who could readily understand their pain and loss, as well as their dreams and expectations.
In a speech my father, Fred Windmueller, offered some reflections on the role and place of the New American Jewish Club when welcoming those immigrants who would arrive following the War:
…. We brought an abiding sense of human compassion, expressed in philanthropy, in the help we have given to the persecuted. We ourselves experienced persecution and therefore understood the plight of our brethren after 1945. We cared for the Survivors of the Holocaust, and in those years the NAJC did their finest person to person relations job.
We did not call the DP’s ‘Refugees’, as we were called. We considered ourselves immigrants and the DP for us was a ‘Delayed Pilgrim.’
In Richmond this community would undertake one additional step, the creation of a cemetery, Emek Sholom. “On November 6, 1955, the New American Jewish Club unveiled a monument, dedicated to 200 family members who had perished in the Holocaust and whose final resting places will forever be unknown.” (www.holocaustcemetery.org)
In 1998, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources recognized the Holocaust Memorial’s uniqueness and listed it as a Historic Landmark in Virginia. The following year, Department of the Interior placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. According to American Jewish historians, Emek Sholom is the second oldest holocaust memorial to be established in North America, coming into existence more than 35 years before the dedication of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington.
The Mission Statement of the Cemetery reads as follows:
Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery is the final resting place for persons of the Jewish faith who have physical and/or emotional ties to the Holocaust, and their families. Its primary goal is to memorialize victims of the Holocaust, whose descendants live (d) in the greater Richmond area, through maintaining the historic Holocaust Memorial landmark and promoting Holocaust education.
In 1999 new members to the Richmond Jewish community, who wished to memorialize their family members who had perished in the Holocaust, were invited to provide additional names; some 261 names would be added to flanking panels. By 2010, a total of 461 names would be memorialized on these tablets. As the Cemetery expands, its leadership is planning to introduce a series of three “Walkways that Teach” designed to chronicle a Holocaust Timeline,1933-1945; the “Road-to-Richmond ” that will identify the names of the more than two hundred survivors who came to Richmond; and “Iconic Quotations” offering inspiring quotations extracted from the Second World War period. Finally, as part of this initiative, the cemetery intends to pay tribute to local Richmonders, including the 30 “Liberators” of concentration camps and death marches and the 4 “Rescuers” of persons who were hunted by the Nazis.
Each year, since 1955, the cemetery has hosted a memorial service that takes place on the Sunday closest to the 9th of November, commemorating “Kristallnacht” (“the night of the broken glass”) when in 1938 Nazi paramilitary units and German citizens would burn over 1,000 synagogues, damage or destroy some 7,000 Jewish businesses, and arrest and incarcerate 30,000 Jewish men. In recent years this ceremony has attracted increasingly larger numbers of community participants.
Across the United States, one would find similar examples, the New York Jewish community would establish a “German Jewish Club” (later to be known as the New World Club), while in Los Angeles, two organizing initiatives would result in the creation of the “1933 Club” and the “1939 Club.”
Historian Hasia Diner, commenting on this period and the impact of German Jews on the New York Jewish scene and beyond, noted:
Most refugees, while availing themselves of the resources offered to them, founded an array of their own institutions that spoke to their needs and reflected their sense of apartness. They founded about thirty synagogues, spanning the religious spectrum from the highly reformed Hebrew Tabernacle to the Orthodox Breuer community centered in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. Where their numbers could not sustain a synagogue, they created their own burial societies. They banded together for lectures and other kinds of social and cultural activities. (Diner, The Jews of the United States, page 245)
By 1985 as the membership of the New American Jewish Club continued to decline, the then leadership elected to formally disband the organization. In 2008 a two-hour documentary entitled “Out of the Holocaust – To New Lives in Richmond, Va.: The NAJC-1947 to 1985” would be produced, capturing the stories of the New American Jewish Club and its members’ contributions to the Richmond community.
Indeed, one of the most important communications vehicle of this period would be the newspaper, “Aufbau” (Reconstruction). Founded by members of the New World Club of New York, it would begin publication in 1934 reaching in excess of 100,000 readers across the world. It would become the central connecting resource for German Jewry in the post-war era. This weekly paper would cease publication in 2004, in part signaling the end of an era.
Established in 1955 the “Leo Baeck Institute” has served as the repository of the documents and records of German Jewry. The Institute was named in honor of Rabbi Leo Baeck, the last leader of the German Jewish community. Following the war Rabbi Baeck came to the United States where he was invited to teach at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Later, he would be elected chairman of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, while also becoming the first president of the Institute, bearing his name.
American Jews from every part of the world would follow in one form or another this pattern of organizing. Creating an array of organizational structures that would allow them to not only memorialize their stories but also permit them the opportunity to aid and share their experiences with fellow Jewish newcomers and the broader society. These social networks were the essential glue to keeping families connected, linking these new communities to broader American Jewish communal systems and ultimately joining them to the American story.
Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.