Simon Sibelman, the new executive director for the Virginia Holocaust Museum, has come full circle. He grew up in the West End, attended Tucker High School and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Richmond in 1970, having majored in French and Russian. After that, he taught at St. Christopher's School — and then came a long stay in Europe.
In 1982, Sibelman began studying French at King's College, University of London, earning a doctorate in 1986. He became a professor there, teaching French part-time, as well as Jewish and Holocaust studies at what was then called the Spiro Institute for Jewish History and Culture, eventually taking a job as the director of adult education. Sibelman returned to the United States in 1990, where he taught French at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, until returning to Richmond in 2009.
A tall and courtly man of 64, Sibelman enjoys the city, but he admits to a more rural pleasure: pigs.
"I love pigs, but I don't eat them," he says with a laugh. "From childhood I have found pigs to be amazing animals, and people over the years have given me pigs," he says, pointing to several figurines grouped on a credenza in his office.
"When I was growing up, we had a menagerie, including an alligator named Ollie that we bought in Florida."
Sibelman has a tamer pet now, a Labrador retriever named Harpo, whom he enjoys walking during his one break from work each week. For Sibelman, the Sabbath is sacrosanct. "I will not come to work. The world can wait that one day."
Sibelman has been on staff at the museum as the assistant executive director since 2009. In February 2011, he was named as Jay Ipson's successor. Ipson, a Lithuanian Holocaust survivor and the museum's first director, retired in June as planned in the board vote.
"As a survivor, Jay had a life experience that denied him a normal childhood," Sibelman says. "He had to grow up fast in the U.S. and, perhaps, not in the best of circumstances."
After conversations with the late Al Rosenbaum and Mark Fetter, his co-founders, Ipson started the museum in 1997 in part to tell his family's story of sacrifice. Sibelman's stepmother lived in Richmond, so he visited often. Twice he spoke at the museum before working there.
In 2007, he was approached by Marcus Weinstein, the major supporter of the VHM and chairman of the board, who asked him to consider a career change. After two years of talks, Sibelman agreed. "They wanted to have someone in place who might be an heir apparent. Jay was aging, and they wanted to have a scholar on staff, looking to the future of the museum.
"My earlier studies had whetted my appetite for research and scholarly works," he notes. "I became interested in the Holocaust."
The subject wasn't entirely foreign to Sibelman, who attends services at Keneseth Beth Israel, the Orthodox synagogue on Patterson Avenue where he was bar-mitzvahed.
While in France during the summer of 1980, Sibelman began reading The Testament, a novel by Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
"It was like I heard whistles and bells — a clarity — like this is what I've got to do," he remembers.
Sibelman's dissertation, Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel, became his first book. "It deals with Weisel's silence — the human, divine, internal silence — his inability at one point to even grieve for his father and something that persisted throughout many of his novels."
Sibelman has edited and written four other books, primarily dealing with Jewish issues in French cinema and literature in the 19th and 20th centuries. His writing will likely take a back seat for a while, since he has industrious plans for the museum, including bringing all the galleries up to date historically.
"I spent a week recently revisiting every gallery looking for information that needed updating," he notes. One thing he's champing at the bit to enlarge is the SS St. Louis display, which depicts some of the story of 937 Jews who set sail from Hamburg, Germany, to Havana, Cuba.
"The story of the St. Louis is important for several reasons, none of which are addressed in our gallery now," he states, "like the 1924 Johnston Act that effectively closed America to immigration, turning us into complete isolationists. How do we address the story of what we as a nation did? We need to do that with a number of other galleries, hone in and make precise what it is that we're trying to say."
Sibelman will oversee a full-time staff of 10, plus two maintenance employees and numerous volunteers, including docents who must deal with hordes of schoolchildren.
In 2011, the museum had slightly more than 53,000 visitors. Sibelman speaks often about the work accomplished at the museum since its inception in a five-room building owned by Temple Beth-El.
"Jay had the vision and pushed others to come with him down that dark hole," Sibelman says of Ipson. "I think at the end of that dark hole — because we're still in it, we're still building this place — there is the hope that we can teach young people, teachers and the general public about tolerance.
"By choosing this work, Jay, along with Al and Dianna Gabay, who made so many of the exhibits, links the Holocaust to Virginia history. It makes the kids recognize that what happened to the Jews was horrible, but it has happened to other people in other times, and it continues to happen. That's why we're developing a gallery on other genocides.
"In a way, it brings us full circle, and it gets a visitor, or child, ready to go back out into the world recognizing that, ‘Oh, my God, it's still happening, and I need to do something.
© Nancy Wright Beasley. All rights reserved 2012.