It all began in the aftermath of the proposed neo-Nazi march on Skokie in the late 1970s. Holocaust survivors living in the area realized they must ensure that the legacy of their horrific experiences is passed on to future generations. It took a while. In 1981, the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois was established and in 1984, a small museum and resource center opened, making it available to the public, especially schoolchildren, who heard first-hand the personal experiences of Holocaust survivors.
Then, in 1990, two important incidents occurred: Governor James Thompson signed the Holocaust Education Mandate into law, making Illinois the first state to mandate the teaching of the Holocaust in all public elementary and high schools, and Mayor Richard M. Daley designated Holocaust Remembrance Day.
"Each year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we come together to remember and learn," said Mayor Daley as he hosted his last HRD to a standing ovation at the Museum in May. "I started Holocaust Remembrance Day in Chicago in memory of the victims and in honor of the survivors. This day reminds us of a past we must never forget and provides us with hope for the future."
To continue, in 2000, these dedicated survivors reached out, and after years of fundraising, in April 2009—led by museum campaign chair J.B. Pritzker, executive director Richard Hirschhaut and former museum president Samuel Harris—they opened the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, Illinois.
The facility is housed inside a 65,000-square-foot building, designed by renowned architect Stanley Tigerman, who memorialized the Holocaust by building one side black and angular, the other side white and curvilinear. Visitors enter through the dark, windowless side to begin a journey depicted by a World War II-era German rail car, like those used to transport Jews to their deaths. At the end of the tour, they exit on the white side, hopefully enlightened by their experience.
"This is the most adventuresome building I've done—not materially, but spiritually," Tigerman says of the center. "A museum such as this holds a belief; I don't care what religion you are, people who believe in something are more committed than those who don't."
"We are indeed committed," explains Fritzie Fritzshall, Holocaust survivor and president of the museum. "We are committed to educating the future generation. They must know about the Holocaust, as well as the recent atrocities in Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia."
And the mission of the museum is succeeding. Public and private school students from across the Midwest are bussing in to learn and experience the past. Since the opening of the museum, over 100,000 students have gone through, led by 140 docents who have undergone an 8-month training program.
About five or six classes go through in intervals, and all students have earpieces so they can hear their docent's narration. The tour begins with the rise of Nazism in the Karkomi Permanent Exhibition. The visitors hear testimonies from survivors and view artifacts, documents and photographs. Some autographed high school yearbooks particularly move students. Many of them wrote, "I'll see you next year"—and of course next year never came for them.
The students learn about the laws in Germany that were promulgated against the Jews. Beginning in 1933, Jews were banned from journalism, music, broadcasting and theater. Later, Germany restricted Jewish public activities and participation in professions. Jewish life under the Swastika was shocking. Jews were in the forefront of culture, literacy and science. From 1901 to 1933, German Jews were among the thirty Germans who had won the Nobel Prize. With the rise of Hitler, few perceived the full extent of what was to follow. How could they?
After learning about the horror of the November pogrom, known as Kristallnacht, when storefronts and businesses were destroyed throughout Germany and Austria, Jews realized that the situation would not get better. Britain responded with an offer to take some 10,000 children until they could be reunited with their parents. Thus Kindertransport began in 1938. This dilemma told many stories. Some children became so British they could not remember German and did not know their parents when reunited. Others never saw their parents again. A few were taken off the trains at the last minute by hysterical mothers or fathers and perished with their parents.
As the field trip continues, students hear about and see photographs and artifacts of people as they were rounded up and moved into ghettos until they were finally deported to concentration camps, where over 6 million Jews and millions of others were killed in an assembly-line fashion.
Students also learn about the resistance of armed underground groups operating in more than ninety ghettos throughout Eastern Europe and the sad news from the United States. Not believing the annihilation going on, but suspecting the anti-Semitic treatment, 95 percent of Americans disapproved of the German regime, but fewer than 9 percent supported changing the system to allow more refugees into the country.
Then there were the rescuers. They offered shelter and assistance, often at the risk of their own freedom. Almost no one survived without assistance. One of the highlights of the visit refers to the fact that the Jewish people, through Yad Vashem—Israel's National Memorial to the Holocaust—have honored more than 20,000 rescuers, naming them Righteous Among the Nations.
There are beautiful and inspirational rooms throughout the museum, such as the Room of Remembrance, which pays special homage to those Jews and millions of others murdered during the Holocaust. Names of victims line the walls in a moving tribute. The Pritzker Hall of Reflection provides a forum for peaceful discussion and contemplation with eighteen windows containing a memorial candle symbolic of life. Then there is the interactive Miller Family Youth Exhibition space, where children ages 8 to 11 learn to combat bullying, counteract indifference and stand up to injustice by way of games and scenarios. The amazing Legacy of Absence Gallery focuses on contemporary artistic responses to genocidal actions and other atrocities through various presentations.
The museum's motto is "Remember the Past, Transform the Future." In this perspective, the trip depicts what it was like to live in the shadow of mass murder, death and dehumanization from the victims, rescuers, collaborators and bystanders, so that a more complete understanding is possible. At the end of the tour, there is a short reflective video, narrated by Barbra Streisand, and instead of the well-known phrase "Never Again," the words the students leave with are "Now, it's up to you."
Finally, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, "It is essential that future generations learn about the Holocaust and understand the relevance to today's world. By remembering the Holocaust, we remember the importance of speaking out against bigotry and injustice." He adds, "In the years to come, I will carry out Mayor Daley's work to make sure that the tragedy of the Holocaust is never forgotten." The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center will make sure as well.