There are several museums dedicated to the Holocaust located around the world; in the U.S., the most notable ones include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. Perhaps a little lesser known nationally, but no less impactful, is the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. What began as a small storefront space on the town's Main Street in 1984 now receives over 150,000 visitors annually in its 65,000-square foot building after officially opening to the public in 2009.
As Amanda Berrios, the museum's Marketing and Communications Coordinator explains, Skokie's notorious brush with marching neo-Nazis in the late '70s inspired the eventual opening of the museum.
"Rabbis told local survivors to stay inside, close their window shades, and not to pay attention to the threats," she says. "Though Holocaust survivors were reluctant to speak out, the attempted march was a 'wake-up call,' and the danger of ignoring it felt all too familiar. The terror and outrage of seeing swastikas in their community galvanized a group of survivors to establish the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois in 1981. Twenty Holocaust survivors would meet in a basement, with the dream of one day opening an educational institution that preserved their stories and taught the lessons of the Holocaust to current and future generations."
The modern building consists of two floors, with the Holocaust expedition occupying most of the first floor and remembrance areas and art gallery housed on the second floor. One of the permanent exhibits is the Zev and Shifra Karkomi Exhibition which displays over 500 artifacts, photographs, and documents that depict pre-WWII European life as well as life inside the ghettos and concentration camps.
Although many of the exhibits focus on the WWII Holocaust, many others put the spotlight on human rights around the world and holocausts from other periods of history. The Harvey L. Miller Family Youth Exhibition is specifically for children ages 8 to 12 and teaches kindness, addresses bullying, and educates with stories about Rosa Parks, Anne Frank, and other notable historical figures that took a stand for equal human rights. These and other programs make the museum a popular destination for local schools.
"The museum inspires over 150,000 individuals of all ages each year, teaching them to stand up for what's right--to turn the powerful lessons of history into positive actions today," says Berrios. "Each year, more than 60,000 students and teachers, many funded by Opportunity Scholarships, take part in field trips, conferences, contests, and outreach programs that include the unique opportunity to hear survivors tell their stories in person."
The museum also works closely with Chicago police recruits to help them understand civil protection as it relates to human rights. According to Berrios, all recruits attend a day of training at the museum, and the program was recently expanded to include Chicago police officers as well.
Later in 2017, the museum will introduce a groundbreaking, three-gallery exhibition suite, the Take A Stand Center. One of the center's most unique features will be its Survivor Stories Experience Theater which will showcase high-definition holographic recordings of survivors' stories and use voice recognition technology so that visitors can actually ask the holograms questions.
With many hands-on exhibits and dedication to a sensitive part of history, the museum will continue to educate the public about the importance of human rights, thus continuing the dream of the twenty survivors that met in a basement several decades ago.