Skokie, Illinois has a lot of things going for it – Old Orchard Mall, a beautiful piece of the lakeshore, and some fantastic theaters and performing arts venues. It was also the place where Illinois Nazis, members of the National Socialist Party of America, planned and attempted a march in 1977 and 1978. Given the large population of Jewish citizens, and more specifically, Holocaust survivors in Skokie, the demonstration was protested heavily, since it was considered to be ‘politically provocative and socially disruptive.’ The court cases that arose from this went all the way to the Supreme Court, and eventually, the rally was moved to Marquette Park in Chicago. These were the Illinois Nazis satirized in Blues Brothers. Far from fiction, though, they were a real threat to the community. It was a shock to the town, and provoked many survivors to end their silence, eventually building the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois, with the goal combat hate with education. In 1990, this organization helped to ensure that Holocaust education was a requirement in public schools with the Holocaust Education Mandate, which was expanded in 2005 to include education on genocides around the world in an effort to prevent these kinds of atrocities from persisting.
It took 30 years for the visions of this foundation to result in a museum, but in 2009, that’s precisely what happened. The Illinois Holocaust Museum was born. Its founding principle? “Remember the Past, Transform the Future.”
This principle is quite literally what the museum is built around. Museum founders enlisted renowned architect Stanley Tigerman as the lead on the project, and the resulting building flows from dark to light, as you traverse from the museum’s darkest corners, where the horrifying atrocities are laid out in detail, upstairs and into the light, where you can find ways to take action against prejudice, injustice and hate, see how others have done the same, and remember those who have helped to transform the future.
You’ll find a kid’s section, the Harvey L. Miller Family Youth Exhibition, where children learn about people like Rosa Parks who stood up for change in their world, put themselves into real-world bullying and social problems and then learn the best ways to solve them, pledge to take simple (or sometimes more complex actions) to help others and the world around them, and even tell their own stories in the privacy of their own booth about the things that matter to them and what they can do to change things.
There are places for reflection and remembrance in several areas of the museum. The Room of Remembrance is awash in golden light and prominently features the names of victims of the Holocaust. Meanwhile, the Pritzker Hall of Reflection provides an open, thoughtful space that the museum hopes will inspire peaceful discussion and reflection. Finally, in the outside area of the museum, visitors will find the Fountain of the Righteous. This is a special memorial dedicated to those who helped Jews escape during the Holocaust. The museum has honored 71 people by adding their names to the walls surrounding this fountain.
The museum also features space for special exhibitions. The two currently on display are particularly great. Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution is a journey through the life and career of Bill Graham, a Holocaust survivor himself who then went on to open the Fillmore East and West and launch the careers of some of the finest musicians of all time, like the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana.
There’s enough fantastic music memorabilia to fill the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and indeed, some of it, like first draft lyrics and set lists belonging to Jimi Hendrix, is actually headed there once the exhibit moves on in January 2018. But one of the most profound pieces is one you might otherwise walk by. It’s a simple metal basin filled with apples that used to sit on the steps of Fillmore West, accompanied by a sign that says “Have one… or two.” While it wasn’t known at the time, this harkened back to Graham’s Holocaust experiences, during which he’d steal away to the orchard and take apples for the children he was fleeing the Nazis with. Take a look at our more in-depth review of this exhibit from a while back.
Another fantastic exhibit is Besa: A Code of Honor. Besa features images by photographer Norman Gershman and concentrates on Besa, a code of honor that exists between Muslim Albanians and Jews to protect and provide help for them, both during the time of the Holocaust and until today, even as the country was occupied by the Germans in 1943. Albanians provided sanctuary, documentation and friendship. The friendship and community built then persists now.
Rounding out the museum experience are amazing art galleries and the newly christened Take A Stand Center, an exhibit which not only takes you through an interactive look at social justice issues the world over, but also does something no one else in the world has done. The museum worked tirelessly for 3 years testing it, and the result is quite amazing. The theater in the Take A Stand Center uses three-dimensional holographic technology to actually bring Holocaust survivors into the space. Every hour on the hour 11 am to 4 pm on weekdays with an earlier showing on the weekends and a Thursday evening extension til 7, visitors can hear the stories of individual survivors, then actually ask questions and have them answered by these amazing interactive holographic representations of the actual person. You can find out more about the exhibit in our feature on it here, but it brings the survivors’ stories to life in an amazing way, allowing visitors to ask any questions on their mind after they watch the videos on the survivor’s experience.
The issues of the past do not remain in the past. They’re present and threatening today just as they were before. The Illinois Holocaust Museum brings awareness to the issues plaguing current society as they teach visitors about the past. Instead of exhibits like the piles of shoes you see in the National Holocaust Museum, you’ll find one set of shoes from each member of one family, and it’s intentional. Though the sheer numbers of people lost in the horrors of the Holocaust need to be presented in a meaningful way, so do the individual stories of the victims and the lives that they led. Though the death and pain and suffering needs to be impressed upon us even if it’s uncomfortable and hard to look at, we also need to see the light – the helpers. The righteous among nations. And once we’ve seen this light, and the people who helped save so many, we need to be that light in the world, by becoming “upstanders” not bystanders. Every brick, every glass case, every wall in this museum is a way of guiding you through this process – to remember or learn about the past and then take the hope and light of other good people and become a part of it yourself, transforming the future.
Now more than ever, a place like this is needed, and we recommend a visit – to remind yourself of what can happen if no one takes action, and renew your hope that if you do take action, you can make a difference.