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Near Chicago, the Holocaust's lessons resonate

By Hilary Krieger
Sunday, November 22, 2009

The heart-stopping moment came precisely halfway through my visit. The stoic front I'd maintained through grainy displays of Nazi propaganda and graphic photos of concentration camp graves collapsed as I mounted the steep ramp at the epicenter of the new Holocaust museum in Skokie, Ill.

Before me was the planked-wood carcass of a German railcar used in World War II, the type that transported millions of Jews and others whom the Nazis deemed undesirable to their deaths. Although there's no way to be certain that this particular car was used for that end, it is beyond doubt that as many as 125 human beings should never have been packed into a space this small, dark and airless. The car is purposely bare, a haunted cavity filled only with the visions of one's imagination.

"Many of the survivors who were in the cars view it as a sacred place," said Bethany Fleming, museum curator at the time of my visit last month. "They didn't want to add anything to it. They wanted it to speak for itself."

In fact, as I recovered from my encounter with the railcar and moved through the rest of the exhibits, I realized that the whole museum is an exercise in speaking for oneself.

Jewish refugees, who after World War II turned the Chicago suburb of Skokie into the largest community of Holocaust survivors outside Israel, kept a long silence about their wartime experiences, out of a combination of shame, guilt and a desire to look forward rather than back. But when they found their voices, they made Skokie one of the places where the cry of "Never again!" has rung out loudest.

Even as an East Coaster hardly versed in the geography of the greater Chicago area, I had heard of Skokie well before I arrived. Its name is synonymous with a 1977 Supreme Court case centered on whether neo-Nazis had a First Amendment right to march in the heart of the community. The prospect of such a march galvanized survivors, who organized a counter-march that amounted to a coming-out party, helping to spark education programs, survivor testimonies and Holocaust museums throughout the world.

"They were worried that the same thing could happen in this country," Chana Anderson, a child of survivors who now volunteers as a docent at the museum, told me in her clipped Polish accent. "When the Nazi march was planned, they said, 'No, no, no. We're going to start doing something.' "

The final exhibit bears proud witness to that something: a rally by survivors and their neighbors more than 20 times larger than that mustered by the neo-Nazis, who won their case but decided to march elsewhere in and around Chicago.

The dichotomy between the horror and the heroism of this historic chapter lies at the heart of the museum's presentation. The building is divided in two: One half is industrial and metallic, charcoal gray with little lighting, filled with a detailed record of dehumanization and atrocity. The other, tiled white with windows, rounded edges and softer materials, holds displays about the survival of the Jewish people, those who saved Jews and the redemption ultimately afforded by acts such as the survivors' march. The light side, aiming to leave visitors "enlightened," also contains classrooms and other facilities for school groups. Symbolizing humanity's fracture, but not its total rupture, the halves are connected and anchored by the Room of Remembrance.

The museum's focus on education and community makes it a more modest facility than many other Holocaust museums, but also one that's more intimate. The imprint of the Skokie population is evident in displays of mementos the residents themselves preserved, including a belt that one made as a young boy to hold up his pants so he could flee faster and a brassiere that a local woman illicitly stitched in a concentration camp to give herself some shred of dignity.

I felt the communal embrace most strongly, though, in the museum's spaces of memorialization and reflection, such as the wall in the Room of Remembrance that's etched with victims' first names only, which are by their nature informal and often shared by many people. Or the room's memorial book, placed between columns echoing Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, where each name is prefaced with the family relationship -- "my sister" or "my father" -- introducing me to the survivors as well as to the victims.

Or in a small railroad car that bears no name -- and every name.

Krieger is Washington bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post.

Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 9603 Woods Dr., Skokie, Ill. 847-967-4800, http://www.ilholocaustmuseum.org. Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday open until 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Adults $8, seniors and students $6, children 5-11 $5.

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