In 2009, the third largest Holocaust museum in the world opened up in Skokie, Illinois. The two largest museums are Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., respectively. Why Skokie, you might ask? Skokie used to have one of the largest Holocaust survivor populations in the world. Whereas some Chicago suburbs restricted whether or not Jews could live in their neighborhoods, Skokie welcomed Jews.
Although the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (ILHMEC) in Skokie opened up ten years ago, a smaller version of this museum existed since the late 1970s. In 1977 and 1978, a group of neo-Nazis attempted to march in Skokie in order to antagonize the Jewish community there. However, the issue went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, both the lawyer defending Skokie’s Holocaust survivors and the lawyer defending the neo-Nazis’ freedom of speech were Jews. Even stranger was the discovery made about Frank Collin, the head of the neo-Nazi group in the Midwest, who was trying to march in Skokie in the first place. Collin’s father was a Jewish Holocaust survivor who had been imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
The neo-Nazis eventually won the Supreme Court case, and were granted permission to march in Skokie. However, they ended up changing their minds and marched in Chicago instead. As a result, the Skokie Holocaust survivors started a small museum in a storefront building (which is now the Kaleemullah Masjid mosque), in order to educate people about the Holocaust. This museum ultimately evolved into Skokie’s current Holocaust museum, which primarily contains the testimonies and artifacts of local survivors. The attempted neo-Nazi march also inspired Skokie’s Holocaust survivors to work on having an Illinois law pass, which now requires that schools teach their students about the Holocaust. This law eventually evolved into a broader requirement in which schools must teach about other genocides as well.
In order to fulfill the Illinois law, many schools bring their students on field trips to the ILHMEC. While I was interning at the Museum in 2013, at least forty local Holocaust survivors alternated speaking to these students each day. Although the number of remaining survivors continues to decline, there are still survivors who speak two weekends a month at the Museum to the general public. You can learn the speaking schedule on the Museum’s Events page: https://www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/pages/programs/events/ In preparation for when there will no longer be Holocaust survivors with us, the ILHMEC has partnered with the Shoah Foundation (Steven Spielberg’s project that recorded the testimony of over 50,000 witnesses to the Holocaust) to create a hologram experience with a handful of survivors. The Shoah Foundation intensely interviewed these survivors so that you can now listen to a hologram of these survivors and ask them questions afterwards. Although it is not the same as talking with a real person, it will be a decent substitute in the future.
In addition to an authentic German train car, like the ones used to deport Jews to concentration camps, and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s desk (read his book about forgiveness called The Sunflower), the Museum contains many other interesting objects as well. The silver Judaica objects near the exit to the Museum were confiscated from Jewish homes by the Nazis, and eventually found by U.S. troops in German warehouses after the War (vividly depicted in the 2014 film The Monuments Men). An organization called the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR for short) formed soon after the War with the mission of finding the original owners of these objects. Since most of the owners had perished, these items were ultimately donated to different Jewish organizations throughout the world. The silver objects at the ILHMEC are on long-term loan from the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, which received these objects from the JCR back in the 1950s. Because they were kept in storage for so long, they arrived at the Museum tarnished and dark in 2013. As an intern at the Museum, I had the privilege of polishing these special items.
Sources and Further Reading
“History.” Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. https://www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/pages/about/history/ (accessed September 26, 2019).
“Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR).” Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-cultural-reconstruction-inc-jcr (accessed September 26, 2019).
Surviving Skokie. Directed by Eli Adler and Blair Gershkow. Clean Slate Productions, 2015. DVD.
Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. 2nd ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.