A state highway historical marker will be unveiled April 18 to note the site of the Van Eeden refugee colony north of Burgaw.

A new state highway historical marker, honoring a Pender County farm tract that served as a refuge from Nazi Germany, will be unveiled Wednesday afternoon outside Burgaw.

A commemoration ceremony for the Van Eeden colony at 2 p.m. at the Pender County Public Library will precede the unveiling. Among the expected speakers are Susan Taylor Block, author of the 1995 book "Van Eeden," and Jerry Klinger, president and founder of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.

"Van Eeden may be the single, most unique example of Holocaust rescue in the United States," Klinger said in a phone interview. "It goes to show, if you have good people who want to rescue refugees, it can be done."

The Van Eeden tract north of Burgaw was the property of Hugh MacRae, who had tried to plant a farm colony with Dutch settlers there in the early 1900s. It was named for Frederik Van Eeden, a Dutch psychiatrist, author and social reformer who helped MacRae recruit Dutch immigrants.

Unlike MacRae's thriving Dutch colony  at Castle Hayne, Van Eeden did not prosper. By 1922, only one Dutch colonist remained at the site, according to Charles W. Riesz Jr. in "Tar Heels in Wooden Shoes."

Then, in the 1930s came Alvin Johnson, the founder of the New School for Social Research in New York. Johnson and his financial backers, including Hiram Halle of Gulf Oil, were actively involved in rescuing Jews fleeing the Nazis in Germany and Austria. That effort was stymied by an anti-Semitic faction in the U.S. State Department. "They were doing their best to keep Jews out," said Klinger, the son of concentration camp survivors.

Johnson, however, found a loophole in U.S. immigration laws: There was no quota limit on farm workers. Thus, Johnson made a deal with MacRae, set up a corporation and began moving refugees to Van Eeden as modern-day homesteaders.

It wasn't easy. Most of the refugees were urbanites with no farm experience. As Leonard Rogoff wrote in "Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina," "The transition to rural North Carolina -- hot, humid and swampy -- was a cultural shock. Burgaw was not Berlin."

Few of the newcomers spoke English. Those who did had learned it from British teachers, Rogoff noted, and had trouble understanding Southern accents at first.

Wilmington Jewish families such as the Bluethenthals, Finkelsteins and Newmans reached out to the newcomers, though, and the Temple of Israel in Wilmington opened its doors to them, Block reported.

The outbreak of World War II prevented more than a handful of refugees from reaching Van Eeden. By the end of the war, almost all of them had moved away to cities, often resuming their old professions. Still, Klinger sees Van Eeden as significant.

"There were only three farm colonies for Jewish refugees," he said. "The Thalheimer family set up one in Virginia, and there was one in South Dakota. Van Eeden, though, was the only one set up by non-Jews."

Established in 1935, the N.C. Highway Historical Marker program has erected more than 1,500 metallic markers on roadsides across the state.

Reporter Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-343-2208.