The Present Past – Groundbreaking Exhibit Brings Holocaust Survivors’ Stories to Life Every Day

Sam Harris, a Holocaust survivor, views his own story in the Take a Stand Center, which opened October 29th at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Photo by Marielle Shaw. It should first be said that the accounts that Holocaust survivors have of their time in the concentration camps, the ghettos and occupied countries, fighting for their lives and witnessing the atrocities that they did are not simply "stories." They are pain and suffering. They are scars. They are important reminders of a time not so long ago when the world saw some of the most horrifying atrocities imaginable. These stories are things that happened to people just like you and me, and could happen again. These stories tell about the worst of humanity as well as the best. They demand to be heard even if they are not easy to hear, and they must not be ignored or denied, because to not believe them, to not respond to them and take action, would be to risk repeating the things that happened in those camps, those cattle cars, and those ghettos. "We're here," said Aaron Elster, a Holocaust survivor whose tale is told with state of the art interactive holographic technology in the Illinois Holocaust Museum's newest permanent exhibition, the Take a Stand Center. "We're the ones who went through this. We're telling you this regardless of our pain because we want you to make a difference. Because when World War II ended, we said never again, but it was just a saying...the Germans were referring to the Jews - we were untermenschen- subhuman. We had no value. It's easy to kill, to eliminate, people that are not people. They're not human beings. So you degrade people first and then you do away with us. Imagine a country as advanced as Germany was, as advanced...they set up a system to try and annihilate a whole group of people. Why? Because they were Jews! And they didn't start with the Jews, they started with their own people. If you had a disability, if you had a mental problem, if you were gay- and they were killing their own people first." "Sometimes, it's like someone else telling your story, other times it seems more real. I've accepted the fact that  my family was killed, my aunts, my uncles, but I had a little sister that loved me so much. Her name was Sarah, and I created this terrible image of how she died and that causes me such pain. Do you have any idea how long it takes to die in a gas chamber? 15 to 20 minutes until your life is choked out. And think about a six year old little girl, people climbing up on top of her, and reaching out for any fresh air, and they lose control of all their bodily functions and they die in agony. This is what you carry with you. It's not a story. It's reality. For me it is." The Illinois Holocaust Museum was founded with the help of a community of survivors, who'd seen Nazis infiltrate their own safe place in Skokie and Chicago, and who knew that the stories must be told, that the history must be taught, so that future generations could prevent hate and social injustice, combat prejudice and prevent inhuman treatment of those unlike ourselves. Brick by brick, these principles were built into the very walls of the museum. Now, the Illinois Holocaust Museum is helping bring these tales of oppression, evil, survival and hope to people in a brand new way - with holograms. On October 29th, the Take A Stand Center opened at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. It represents the tireless work of the museum and the community of Holocaust survivors in Illinois to take what happened then and help people understand it and experience it in new ways. This permanent exhibition emphasizes the need for people to be "upstanders" instead of simply bystanders and to take action in regards to the social issues that plague the US and world today - everything from the wage gap to clean water crises, racial and religious prejudice and bullying are discussed through the interactive exhibit, which then culminates in the focal point of the exhibit- the theater. Every hour, on the hour within the center's operating schedule, visitors will be able to sit down and hear an account from a Holocaust survivor. They will see a video narrated by that survivor detailing their experiences during World War II and during their time in the camps and ghettos. During the video and after, they will also see a detailed 3D hologram of this survivor, and in a world first, after the video is over, visitors will be able to actually interact with that hologram, asking questions pertaining to their experiences then and their feelings now. The survivors sit in their chairs as if right in front of you, and respond to your questions as you ask them. It was a project that took years and years of beta testing, as well as five days straight of six hour questioning sessions for the survivors themselves. Thousands of questions were asked and answered, allowing people to understand more about how these men and women survived, how they felt and feel, and what they think. As some of the youngest survivors are in their eighties, it's a unique way that these stories can be preserved for generations to come in a way they could not have been previously, and an important way to bring the reality of the Holocaust to people in a concrete way. "This country- it's partially divided, with hatred," says Sam Harris, President Emeritus at the museum and one of the Holocaust survivors . "People don't like each other. Blacks, whites, Jews, other minorities. Unless we human beings get together, we'll lose the whole thing, and we'll affect all of us." "You've got to be aware of things. If we're aware, this awareness will push us to action. The action in America is to vote for the kinds of people that will be responsible, to make sure that we go in the right direction. So, awareness to action. And I think education. Education- the reality that these things did happen. Come to a museum like the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. See what history has brought, what reality is. Pictures of death camps, of actual dead bodies. Listen to speeches. And also see the good parts. The good parts of humanity. We must emphasize that too. There's always good people and there's always bad people." "What I'd like people to take away from the museum is to be an upstander instead of a bystander. We need to make sure we have enough upstanders in the United States and all over. First they have to educate themselves and find out what the problems are and how they can rectify it. Maybe get together with people and organize a committee, maybe a march, maybe raising money. There are many many different ways of doing it. We're in a free country. We can do a lot of different things- and I think voting- voting is a big thing. Vote for the right people, and stay tuned to what's happening." It's something to think about. We were privileged to speak with Sam, Aaron and everyone who was a part of making the Take A Stand Center and its amazing storytelling possible, and encourage everyone reading this to take a trip to Skokie to see it in action, and then take action themselves. For more information on the exhibit, the theater times, and the museum itself click here. You can also check out our feature on the museum as a whole here. The Illinois Holocaust Museum is located at 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie, Illinois - about 14 miles outside the city in the north suburbs.  
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Marielle Bokor