The day I attended the opening of The Illinois Holocaust Museum, it poured. That was a year ago. Now, on a sunny day, with the museum fully functioning my associate, Kay and I had the chance to explore the museums’ highlights guided by Kelley Szaney, Associate Director of Education. Our experience was enhanced by her guidance, as she emphasized really significant areas and moved deftly through other tours, i.e., schools from Indiana, a group of seniors from Michigan and Asians on tour.
When I asked what is it that makes The Illinois Holocaust Museum different from other Holocaust Museums, Kelly might have said, “let me count the ways”, there are so many.
First, there is the architectural design, which is intended to bring the visitor to and through the Holocaust and into the light of hope. Then, there is the collection of artifacts and photos displayed throughout the museum that are specifically from the Midwes; this was the first museum to incorporate the Spielberg Midwest interviews of individuals into their overall programming. The reach is much broader than many museums and include places and faces beyond all that happened in WWII, as well as looking into the roots of prejudice and persecution. The hope is that people coming to the museum will understand that the Holocaust is not a Jewish or non-Jewish issue; it’s a human issue whether in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America or elsewhere.
Take a Stand! Make a Difference: The Miller Family Youth Exhibition is an electronic frog game in which frogs are manipulated to "take a stand". With input from a group of survivors, its purpose is to teach the power of how individual action an make a difference in the world.
In addition, a speakers' bureau of survivors who are available to speak to students and other groups number more than sixty, the largest of this kind in the country. The museum also boasts 120 docents with 20 additional individuals scheduled to be trained as docents this summer.
A gallery of painting and photography consistis of five rooms of art depicting scenes from the holocausts located in many places.
The entire lower floor is dedicated to education and boasts several unique interactive computer programs intended to educate 3rd to 6th graders about a sense of identity, the meaning of a name and how to manage difficult social situations. There is also a special area for lectures and teacher training. A space for temporary exhibits is on this floor. The first exhibition was Darfur dream team when the museum opened. We had the chance to explore The Wartime Escape: Margret and H. A. Rey’s Journey from France, creators of Curios George. The exhibit is captivating and based on an new book by Loise Borden and illustrated by Allen Drummond called, The Journey that Saved Curious George.
Only children of sixth grade level and higher are welcomed into the main section of the museum. Younger children have the opportunity to learn about identity and interacting with one another, how to manage difficult social situations, (including bullying and ) using computer programs especially designed specifically for use at the museum.
The main display is engaging, not necessarily pleasant, but definitely engaging. Kelly explained to me that its intendion is to create an environment in which the visitor will want to explore. There are opportunities to watch and listen to survivors who reside in the Midwest tell their stories, what it was like to be in any number of horrible situations within the context of each of the exhibits.
Walking along one sees how the world reacted as news of what was happening to the Jews spread. Mostly, they turned their backs as one sees in the pictures and large wall murals. Theme rooms depict the historical progression of the events leading to, through and following the Holocaust. Hitler gained ground when a meeting of 32 countries took place to decide who would accept Jews into their countries. All but the Dominican Republic closed their doors.
Many students wonder why the Jews did not resist their treatment. Ah, but they did. Looking at the exhibits it is possible to see how and when they resisted and how they held onto some semblance of dignity even if it meant continuing to conduct Shabbat services in bathrooms.
Some of the displays that stood out for me included a Ketubah in Chinese from a couple who were able to escape from Germany and found their way to Shanghai to what at one time was the “Shanghai Ghetto”. Kelly told me there is a large representation of individuals in the Chicago area who came through Shanghai.
I was deeply moved by the room that depicts Kristallnacht. The glass floor, the broken glass pieces on the floor and the broken plate glass windows gave me a visceral sense of what I had read about and what I had heard about this night of “broken glass”.
The section devoted to the release of news that was taking place at the time was very powerful. Layered were actual newspapers, newspapers enlarged many times over filling the walls, and on TV what felt like live news emmanating from films that matched the time period of the newspapers. Another section displayed a map that depicted how quickly the Germans moved into Europe, colorful and graphic and frightening.
In each instance, people are the main focus. Parents, children, faces, clothing, staring eyes, a blanket brought across the world, all keeping the feeling real and alive rather than abstract. In one area there is a depression and you find yourself in a pit modeled after Baba Yar. One can enter a boxcar and think of how it felt to those who were hearded into it. In fact the boxcar was not in the original plan and when it was placed, the only area available was the "cleft" of the building and it turns out it can be seen from everywhere. There is so much more to experience.
I was interested in the library and enjoyed talking with librarian, Matthew Sackel. He had worked with the group of Holocaust survivors as they gathered their memoirs for the final push, publication in the volume, In Our
Voices. Because my friend, Fela Dogadko, was part of this group, I wanted to see the volume that had been promised when the museum opened last year. In fact, it has been published and two of her stories included and it is on sale in the gift shop.
Matthew worked with this group when the museum was located on Main Street in downtown Skokie and when the library was comprised of 1200 volumes. The collection has expanded to 15 thousand volumes in thirteen languages housed in the Lachman Reading Room in a 12- foot high stack area. The Miller Family Computer Lab contains 2100 Midwest testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation (AKA Spielberg Archives). Available online are the Encyclopedia of Judaica, and the library's book collection catalogued in Library of Congress order.
He now manages 52 volunteers who assist him in cataloguing, shelving, processing, collating field trip material, developing computer spreadsheets, and much more including “teaching trunks”. These units include K-4, character education, 7-8, Holocaust, 9-12, Holocaust and 9-12, Genocide. These meet the highest standards for legislated curriculum. Nothing can be checked out but research can be done in the museum with a full collection of DVDs, VCR, printers, and email.
Matthew described the teaching trunks as one-stop classrooms in a trunk, which will be available in the fall on request throughout the Midwest, free of charge. This idea came from Noreen Brand, Director of Education. This is part of the museum’s mission to develop programs that honor and preserve the memory of those lost and to help everyone whom the museum touches realize they have an opportunity to make a positive difference in the world. He also organizes and coordinates the speakers’ bureau.
On April 19th the Illinois Holocaust Museum celebrated its first birthday and welcomed their 100,000th visitor with a certificate. The museum has been welcoming 200 to 300 hundred students a day and when tours can’t be arranged, groups just come for self-guided tours.
Before leaving, we visited the Hall of Remembrance, where 3.000 English, Yiddish and Hebrew first names fill the upper rounded wall. We then stopped for some coffee at the café to process the power and emotion of what we had seen. Visit, and you will be amazed at all there is to see, learn and experience.
Illinois Holocaust Museum
9603 Woods Drive
Skokie, IL 60077
Photos: Barbara Keer