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Holocaust Museum at 'Crossroads of America'

October 12, 2006 By:
Gloria Hayes Kremer, JE Feature
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A rendition of the Skokie museum
The focus of a trip to Chicago to what had been described as "the hotel of the future" changed dramatically as I learned about the dynamic suburbs of the Windy City and, more importantly, the equally dynamic suburban Jewish communities that surround this "Crossroads of America" metropolis.

As I walked into the stunningly designed lobby of the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center (the first convention center to be managed by a hotel chain), the handsome edifice startles one with its futuristic architectural design and decor. It is imaginative, sophisticated and exciting.

The Village of Schaumburg, just 20 miles northwest of Chicago, is typical of the many vibrant outlying communities that seem to keep growing each year.

Serendipitously, I heard about another nearby Chicago suburb undertaking a fascinating project right now. Last June, in the Village of Skokie -- just outside Chicago -- a groundbreaking ceremony introduced what will be yet another ultra-modern, striking structure soon dominating the landscape of the area: The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

Gina Speckman, executive director of Chicago's North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, was born in Detroit, moved to Chicago 20 years ago, and then decided to settle in the North Shore area.

Speaking softly, Gina disclosed that she's the child of two Holocaust survivors. Her parents, Sigmund and Frida Speckman, were Polish survivors. Sigmund's entire family had perished during the war. He chose to move to Russia and then Israel, where, after three weeks, he met and married Frida in Haifa. (The couple now lives in Michigan.)

When the groundbreaking ceremony took place in Skokie, Gina Speckman had already been involved in the museum, which will be completed in 2008.

Many residents in this area are transplants. Lauren Silberman moved from Long Island, N.Y., and now works for the Schaumburg Hotel as an account executive in the marketing and food departments. "There are so many vibrant Jewish communities in the Chicago suburbs," she explained. It is estimated that there are about 250,000 Jews in Greater Chicago and the suburbs.

The new Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center will be the largest center in the Midwest dedicated to teaching the universal lessons of the Holocaust. It will be located in Skokie at 9603 Woods Drive (the numbers add up to "18" -- or chai).

"About 25 years ago," explained Speckman, "Skokie was home to the largest population of Holocaust survivors in the country. Some key survivors in the community banded together and formed a Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois."

The group met in a small storefront museum on Main Street, where several members volunteered to speak to groups.

From its humble beginnings as a museum and speakers' bureau in 1981 where it still operates, each year the facility has presented the history of the Holocaust to 30,000 students, as well as countless adults.

In the 1970s, half the population of Skokie (estimated to be about 66,000) were survivors -- or directly related to a survivor -- of the Holocaust. These victims of the atrocities had resettled in America, expecting to lead lives free from persecution. But their security was shattered when a neo-Nazi group announced its intention to parade there in 1977, igniting enormous controversy.

The town, arguing that the march would assault the sensibilities of its citizens and spark violence, managed to win a court injunction against the marchers. The American Civil Liberties Union took the case and successfully defended the Nazis' right to free speech. (Ironically, attorney David Goldberger was caught in the position of being a Jew defending the rights of Nazis against fellow Jews.) Although ultimately the ACLU did win the case, after much-heated national publicity, the Nazis never did wind up marching in Skokie.

The museum, by its presence in Skokie, is a symbolic response to that proposed neo-Nazi march.

Richard Hirschhaut, the executive director of the museum, told audience members this summer that "the ground we break today soon will become sacred."

He added that the future museum will be known as "a citadel of memory, survival and hope," and "a bulwark against hate and indifference."

Among the prestigious speakers that day was Victor Aitay, former concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who escaped the Nazis with the help of Swedish diplomat and Righteous Gentile Raoul Wallenberg. Aitay played a musical selection at the ceremony.

Several speakers at the groundbreaking ceremony remarked that Illinois was the first state in the country to mandate that Holocaust education be taught in public schools, largely through the efforts of members of the Holocaust Foundation of Illinois. Organizers hope that the 64,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility will touch hundreds of thousands of lives.

The design of the museum, by renowned Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman, is particularly interesting; it will have two wings -- one "dark" and one "light."

As visitors literally descend into a gallery in the dark wing of the museum, they will view a film describing the vibrancy of pre-war European Jewish life, and then may ask questions to help guide their tour.

Suddenly, the space shifts dramatically, and darker as scenes show the increasing Nazi restrictions, confiscation and mass violence leading to Kristallnacht -- and finally, to extermination. The centerpiece of the museum, its anchor artifact, will be an early 20th-century German rail car of the type used to transport millions of Jews to the death camps.

Then visitors ascend to the light side, where they will view stories of liberation, displaced-persons camps and immigration, as well as to the rebirth of Jewish communities in North America, Israel and elsewhere. Upon conclusion of the tour, visitors enter the Hall of Reflection, where they may engage in personal contemplation.

As the generation of Holocaust survivors ages, it is even more important that this shocking period of history be heard, understood and preserved.

As Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel has said many times over: "Who will be here to tell our story when the last survivor dies?" 

 

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