Splash Magazines

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center Review - A Grand Opening

By Barbara Keer

View the Full Article | Return to the Site

Arriving in the rain

It was cold and rainy when the shuttle bus dropped our group off near the huge tent where the Grand Opening ceremonies for the  Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center were to take place. This date, April 19, 2009, was chosen to commemorate the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a significant moment in the history of the Holocaust.  This opening is poignant in that this building is likely to be the last international institution of its kind in which the Holocaust survivors will have participated directly.  It is the largest institution in the Midwest dedicated to preserving the memories of those lost in the Holocaust and to teach current generations to fight hatred, indifference and genocide.

Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center

It is ironic that the impetus for the creation of this building was the threatened neo-Nazis march in Skokie in the late 1970s. Holocaust survivors around the world were shocked. Suddenly, they realized that despite their desire to leave the past behind, they could no longer remain silent. In the wake of these attempted marches, Chicago-area survivors joined together to form the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. The group focused on combating hate with education and since 1981, the organization has educated school and community groups through its speakers’ bureau and an existing small museum. About 30,000 students visited the original site in Skokie in 2005. The organization is also proud of its efforts to secure the passage of the Holocaust Education Mandate. In 1990, Illinois became the first state to require Holocaust Education in public schools. In 2005, the organization was again influential in the expansion of this mandate, creating the Holocaust and Genocide Education Mandate, which requires Illinois schools to teach about all genocides.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is the largest and most sophisticated center in the Midwest dedicated to teaching the universal lessons of the Holocaust. Architect Stanley Tigerman has created a 65,000 square-foot three-part building, dedicated to Holocaust survivors with a theme of darkness to light.  The intent is that education will serve to preserve memories and to prevent future genocide.

Dancers before the program began

While waiting for the ceremonies to begin, I spoke with Bernie Finkel who presents the “Jewish Community Hour” on radio station WCGO-AM 1590 on Sundays from 11:00 to noon.  Celebrating 46 years on the radio with Bernie Finkel hosting it for 34 years, it is the longest continuously running radio show of its kind. 

Hands raised and waving as the "Soul Children of Chicago" sang

The Grand Opening program was well paced and skillfully wove together entertainment, live speeches and video taped messages.  At several points the Holocaust survivors were asked to stand as they were thanked for the gift of this Museum, for the gift of their stories, and for the gift of their survival and humanity.  Each speaker emphasized the importance of learning the lessons from the past so there can be a future in which human dignity prevails.  From darkness to light was the message.  Jan, a friend of mine, commented that the speakers sent a message that was honest and not sugar coated.  They referred to the prevalence of anti-Semitism and genocide surrounding us today and still offered hope that education and action can make a positive difference.

Miri Ben-Ari

From the performers to the words of the politicians, religious leaders and others of prominence, what messages remain with me? Miri Ben-Ari, the “hip-hop” violinist was spectacular, using her electric violin in the video with Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech as a backdrop. A Grammy award winner, she established an educational foundation, “Gdank” (remember).   Raised arms waving as the Soul Children of Chicago sang America the Beautiful.  Listening to Skokie Mayor, George Van Dusen as he described the selection of the site and architect selection for the museum.  Steven Spielberg’s comments on how pleased he is that his Shoah Project interviews (52.000 completed  with 2.000 from the Midwest) are being  integrated into the displays of the museum.  Illinois Governor, Pat Quinn’s tale of his trade mission to Poland during which he took two survivors to Auschwitz. In Warsaw, he met a 96 years old man who said, “It is the duty of the living to teach children to be righteous and stand against evil – and never forget”.  Sam R. Harris, Museum President and Holocaust Survivor, told us he spent 63 years “running toward the creation of the museum”.  Klaus Scharioth, German Ambassador to the United States, who spoke eloquently as he referred to  “a shameful period in German History and the worst period in human history."  He pledged to work together to fight anti-Semitism.  He said that currently there is a Jewish Community of 240,000 in Germany.  In the video by Shimon Perez, Israeli President, he said that that the Survivors memories are lessons for all humanity.  “Remember to survive –survive to remember”.  In the video prepared for the opening of the museum, President Barack Obama said, “We each have a responsibility to stand up for our fellow human beings…That’s the message that school will learn when they visit this museum.”

Illinois Governor, Pat Quinn (photo: Elizabeth Riley)

Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s video message stated that we need to “Recall the past to inspire the future.”

On video, Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton

Nobel Laureate, Author and Holocaust Survivor, Professor Elie Wiesel’s talk was impassioned and moving as he referred to the system that worked when people came to die and people came to kill.  He told also of meeting President Bill Clinton at the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  To his horror, Professor Wiesel, learned when he opened his folder with his talk for the event, that his speech was soaked and couldn’t be read.  He chose to ad-lib, and part way through the speech, he turned to President Clinton and said that he had seen terrible things in Sarajevo and begged for something to be done.  This was the beginning of a relationship that lead to the end of the war in the Balkans.

Nobel Laureate, Author, and Holocaust Survivor, Elie Wiesel (Photo: Elizabeth Riley)

And, finally, the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton spoke.  He said that the heartland needs a museum as well as Washington, D. C., New York and Los Angeles, that he was moved by the beauty and power of the artifacts donated by the Survivors to the museum and that visitors would be enlightened and empowered by what the Survivors shared.  He spoke of ways to prevent future genocides and shared how his work has helped to heal Rwanda.  He offered inspiration and clarification and his presence enhanced the Grand Opening.

42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton(photo:Elizabeth Riley)

A few days following the Grand Opening, I had the chance to experience the impact of the Education Center first hand.  My friend, Fela Dogadko is a Holocaust survivor and has participated with about eight other survivors in a workshop lead by Esther Spodek sponsored by the education department of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.  The group has been meeting at the Skokie Library monthly to work on writing their memoirs.  The stories have become a large body of work and are expected to be published and available for purchase at the museum gift shop in the fall.  I first heard Fela’s stories when we worked together. On her retirement, Fela’s son insisted she record her memories for her grandchildren.  She is a good writer and publishing has been her goal. This will be her dream come true.

The “memoir writers” are becoming a kind of speaker’s bureau with their first presentation for the junior high classes at Beth Emet Synagogue.  I was very moved by the stories read by Esther Podek and her neighbor, an actress.  Stories ranged in location, voice and perspective but each was moving.  A question following the reading, asked if anyone in the group knew others who had written about their experiences.  Fela's remarkable story followed.  A few years ago she visited her friend from third grade in Israel and enthusiastically told about writing her memoirs.  Fela’s talking about her stories jogged her friend’s memory.  She remembered her mother had kept a daily log. The log was a record of time in the Ghetto, the camps (where her four-year old friend escaped being shot when she fainted), staying in a convent and then in the forest with partisans.  Up until this discussion about memories, the dairies had remained in the bottom drawer of a dresser where they had never been read – for sixty years.  “How can you not read them?” asked Fela.  She has since read them and so have her grandchildren.

This story is evidence of the far reaching nature of the museum's programs.  The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Educational Center promises continued enrichment for the community in which it is housed, the State of Illinois, the United States and the world.

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
9603 Woods Drive
Skokie, IL 60077

Ph: 847.967.4800

Published on Dec 31, 1969

View the Full Article | Return to the Site