Shoah museum near Chicago has myriad options

I have just returned from a two-day visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, located – not, as you might expect, in the heart of Chicago, but in a northern suburb named Skokie. The chosen site speaks volumes about Holocaust history and the collective power of its Survivors.
After World War II’s opening of the infamous concentration and death camps and the liberation of those still alive there, many Survivors who made it to the United States somehow wound up in Skokie, which became a town whose population was about three-quarters Jewish. And among those Jews clustered some 7,000 Survivors, which is why in the late 1970s, a group of Neo-Nazis banded together and picked Skokie to make another stand against them.
But this time, there was no cowering, running or hiding. Many Survivors had not yet spoken about their horrific experiences at Nazi hands, but they decided to make their own stand, and were joined by thousands more, Jewish and not. On the day originally scheduled for a Nazi march, it was the citizens of Skokie who marched and had their own victory. The museum opened on that same location in 2009, and it is now the third-largest Holocaust museum in the world, behind only Yad Vashem and the U.S. national museum in Washington, D.C.
Notice its official name: Holocaust Museum and Education Center. As has our own Dallas facility, which went from being a Holocaust Museum to its current Holocaust Museum Center for Education and Tolerance, and will soon become the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, the thrust of both institutions has changed with the passage of time. As there are fewer and fewer Survivors to give personal-experience testimony, emphasis has shifted toward future prevention of such past horrors, with outreach to students and their teachers of primary importance. As does our own center, the one in Skokie is grooming future “Upstanders” to take personal action against even the smallest violation of human rights.
I won’t try to detail for you the many and varied programs that go on under the roof on the massive Illinois structure, the many opportunities for personal involvement, and the many exhibits that fill its rooms and line its hallways. My favorite – if there can be such a thing in such a setting – is called “Stories of Survival: Object – Image – Memory.” Susan Abrams, the museum’s CEO, calls the collection “an exploration of the meaning behind the everyday things that become so much more.”
So, the viewer can see actual items that Survivors clung to during their ordeals and brought with them afterward: a doll’s dress – a coin – a few keys on a ring – a bracelet – a photograph. But what is most exceptional here is how these items, actually in cases, are further illustrated with wall-mounted photos that include comments by those who saved and still treasure them.
And these objects go far beyond what the visitor would initially expect to find in a Holocaust museum: not all are from Holocaust Survivors, but from Survivors of other genocides, including Cambodia, Sudan, Rawanda… The message is frighteningly clear: human suffering on a mass scale has continued on after “our” Holocaust; we must bring up new generations to stop them from happening in the future.
I shake the hand of Fritzie Fritzshall, once a teenage girl among several hundred older women, each of whom would give her a crumb or two of their daily bread ration in turn for her word: “I made a promise to those women in Auschwitz,” she says now, “that if I survived, I would tell the world my story.” And she has, in one of the biggest ways possible: she is currently president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
There are many great things there, more than I could fully experience in just two days. But now, I’m looking ahead to great things here, when our new Dallas museum opens on Sept. 17, 2019.

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  1. Marcy Larson

    Thank you for this lovely article. And to the readers – if anyone is visiting Chicago, we welcome you to our Museum!

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