Monday, June 1, 2009

Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center

I attended the grand opening of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center April 19, which featured guest speakers President Bill Clinton and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. The Museum held the ceremony in outdoor tents, and I did not have a chance to see the Museum exhibits that day. The Museum was gracious enough to offer complimentary passes to all opening ceremony attendees, which were valid through May 31 (yesterday). So I took the opportunity to visit, perhaps for the last time; I don't plan on paying admission.

East Parking is closer to the building than West Parking. It's a small lot, and I squeezed into a space reserved for "Fuel-Efficient Vehicles." Since it didn't say "Hybrids only," I figured I was safe. The Museum is still unfinished. There are many "Pardon our Dust" signs throughout the building, indicating exhibits that are yet to open. The completed exhibits are likely one would expect from a history museum. Not so many artifacts--plenty of panels explaining Holocaust background, and many video screens. The video screens show interviews with survivors, archival footage of Holocaust activity and some World War II history. There's a great video of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain receiving a hero's welcome upon his return to London after selling out Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938. I didn't actually hear him say "peace in our time," but that was the idea. There's another video with a map of Europe that shows the Third Reich extending its reach across the Continent as the war drags on. The air raid siren that is part of war footage in the video can be heard all over the exhibit floor--very annoying.

Others have noted the Museum's drawbacks. The Museum takes pains to note other "undesirables" murdered in death camps and concentration camps, such as mentally ill, mentally retarded, and Roma (Gypsies). But the Germans did not expend considerable resources, which drained the war effort itself, to kill these people. The Third Reich initiated the Holocaust, made possible through the technological breakthroughs of the 19th Century's Industrial Revolution, specifically to murder Jews. The Reich may well have won the war, or at least been permitted to continue to run its own country, if it had not committed so many men, trains and fuel to murdering Jews. To its credit, the Museum does mention several times the collaboration of citizens of European countries that contributed to the Holocaust effort.

The $45 million Museum was made possible through grants of taxpayer funds and extensive help from Jewish donors. I'm not sure if the Museum's focus away from the inherently Jewish character of the Holocaust is a trade-off to public funding. It's certainly disappointing and not completely honest. The murder of non-Jews was strictly a "while we're at it" exercise. Non-Jews were not the targets of Nazi terror.

In a blatant display of avoiding Jewish character, the museum does not have mezuzahs affixed to its doorways. But it sells beautiful mezuzahs in the gift shoppe--for $80 apiece! Ironic? There are also kippot with the museum logo (its two buildings' angled and curved roofs) on the sides for $12. That's a $4 kippah. Please. Bowing to public outcry, there are apparently kosher options in the café (which I did not visit), but the café still sells non-kosher food.

One thought that kept jumping out at me was the tyranny of a militarized society preying on an innocent, unarmed minority. In the face of our very antisemitic recent history, I don't understand why so many liberal Jews (1) support handgun bans like Chicago's; and (2) don't keep weapons in their homes where they are legal. Some Jews think holding valid passports at all times is very important Just In Case. I think packing heat is important--not because I think the government is coming after me. But what if a crazed mob tore through the streets, heading straight for a Jewish neighborhood? Call 911? In that case, cops show up in time to draw the chalk lines. The best defense against an out-of-control mob is armed self-defense. Vandals damaged synagogues in Rogers Park and Lincolnwood just a few weeks ago. Could the thugs next go after people? We don't know. We shouldn't wait to prepare to defend ourselves. We should demand that right from Hizzoner Da Mare Richard M. Daley now.

My friend Gerald wrote a terrific opinion piece opposing the Holocaust Museum. As you can see if you click on that link, readers had plenty to say! I haven't gone through all the comments. Just thinking out loud: why did we build it? Washington has a deeply moving and beautifully built Holocaust Museum. Auschwitz has one for those who do the March of the Living. And of course Yad Vashem is in Jerusalem--a stunning, emotional experience. But Skokie? Let me quickly assess four reasons given:

1. To explain the dangers of antisemitism. I'm not sure Holocaust education helps or if a $45 million museum is worth the cost. Illinois law requires the Holocaust be taught in schools. Do kids need another field trip--another excuse to escape classrooms for a day? I don't envision a situation in which the museum stops someone's antisemitic leanings.

2. To explain the dangers of genocide. The lessons of the Holocaust didn't stop Stalin or Mao, and the world pretty much shrugged as millions of Soviets and Chinese died at the hands of these murderous Communists. Pol Pot wiped out one or two million of his own people. Did anyone notice or care? To stop genocides, we need governments focused on humanity and morality (not destroying Israel). I don't think museums help.

3. To fight bigotry and Holocaust denial. People who believe in conspiracy theories continue to believe in conspiracy theories. In fact, they consider overwhelming evidence to the contrary proof that the conspiracy is a strong one. And antisemitic bigots are not phased by museums.

4. Because the Nazis threatened to march in Skokie in 1979. Yes, they wanted to. And they didn't. They tried to march in Chicago, but as I recall, the cops wouldn't let them because they feared for the Nazis' safety. So let them march! Big deal! Let them march and get it over with. On the day of the ceremonial opening of the Skokie museum, there were Nazi demonstrators about a mile away. They held signs and called us liars. Big deal. Why make their publicity goal easier by making a media circus (and bad made-for-tv movie) out of it? I wish the community had caved in to the ACLU's Jewish lawyer (seriously), issued the permit and found something else to do that day. Yes, Skokie has Holocaust survivors, and many more were alive 30 years ago. So we give them a museum? I don't understand that logic.

The Jewish community of the 21st Century doesn't need a museum. It needs more kids. It needs more visits to Israel. It needs more kids in Jewish schools. It needs kids who think it's cool to be Jewish rather than nerdy or something to hide. It needs girls and women who think being Jewish is beautiful rather than something to have surgically repaired, or a family trait to obscure. It needs men who want to marry Jewish women instead of running in the other direction. I don't want young Jewish boys and girls, men and women to think of themselves as victims. I want them to think of themselves as the next generation of a wonderful tradition of ethical monotheism and an ancient people with a proud history. Of course I mourn and say kaddish for the six or seven million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. I consider them my close relatives. But we have no future if we stand on just the Holocaust and antisemitism. God, Torah and Israel--now we're on to something.

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