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New Illinois Holocaust museum emphasizes lessons for future

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Elie Wiesel, left, is greeted by Richard Hirschhaut, executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, at the museum's opening in Skokie on April 19, 2009. (Ron Gould Studios / Chicago Jewish News)

Elie Wiesel, left, is greeted by Richard Hirschhaut, executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, at the museum’s opening in Skokie on April 19, 2009. (Ron Gould Studios / Chicago Jewish News)

Some 12,000 guests attended the public opening of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie on April 19, 2009. (Ron Gould Studios / Chicago Jewish News)

Some 12,000 guests attended the public opening of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie on April 19, 2009. (Ron Gould Studios / Chicago Jewish News)

SKOKIE, Ill. (JUF News) — The opening of the new Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center marks the completion of a 10-year odyssey.

First imagined by local Holocaust survivors, the Skokie museum stands as a testament to the choices survivors made “of life over loss, of hope over heartbreak,” the chairman of the museum’s capital campaign, J.B. Pritzker, told an audience of 10,000 at the official opening Sunday.

“The stories told here are not just Jewish stories, or gay and lesbian stories, or Catholic stories,” Pritzker said. “They are the stories about mankind in all its dimensions.”

Pritzker was master of ceremonies at the public grand opening, which featured a keynote address by former President Bill Clinton and speeches by Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, German U.S. Ambassador Klaus Scharioth, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen, Museum President and Holocaust survivor Samuel Harris, and Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago President Steven Nasatir.

President Obama, Israeli President Shimon Peres, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and director Steven Spielberg recorded messages for the event.

“The museum will serve as a lasting memorial to all those who died in the Holocaust and those who lived through it,” Obama said. “But it will also help each of us understand what we can do to fight the many forms of injustice and cruelty that persist in our own time.”

The museum’s striking building guides visitors from the dark of hate-mongering to the light of empathy. Visitors begin on the dark side, where exhibits tell of the horrors of the Holocaust and other genocides, and then emerge on the light side of the Stanley Tigerman-designed building for exhibits that “represent the rescue and renewal of survivors of the Holocaust,” according to museum materials.

The two parts of the building are connected by a “cleave” that houses an authentic early 20th century German rail car.

The museum also features a Room of Remembrance as a memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust, as well as personal artifacts of survivors and more than 2,000 video testimonies by survivors from the Midwest whose memories were recorded by Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.

A special children’s exhibit will explore themes such as fairness and respect, diversity, “upstanding” rather than “bystanding” and social responsibility in a safe space.

“The museum will serve as a beacon to the world where we will learn from the past and make sure that this or any other Holocaust never happens in the future,” said Harris, who survived the Deblin and Czestochowa concentration camps — experiences he described in his memoir, "Sammy: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust."

The $45 million museum extends its exhibits beyond the realm of history. It uses the lessons of the Holocaust and modern genocide attempts in Darfur, Cambodia and Rwanda to teach empathy and understanding of others.

Clinton in his keynote address paid special attention to the genocide in Rwanda, acknowledging that his administration did not intervene in the conflict soon enough.

“Our differences make up one-tenth of 1 percent of our genetic makeup. Politically, psychologically and philosophically, that’s nothing,” Clinton said. “Life is short enough without being shortened or scarred by violence related to one-tenth of 1 percent of our identities.”

Speaking before Clinton, Wiesel emphasized the impact of the museum in the effort to teach the next generation about empathy and the lessons of the past. Memory is a vital tool in preventing genocide, he said.

“We must learn certain values and lessons. Whatever happens to one community affects all other communities. When a Jew is hit in the face, the whole world falls to its knees,” Wiesel said.

The museum site holds particular meaning to those who have worked to build it. After World War II, many European Jews settled in Skokie, which at one point was thought to have the largest per capita number of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel.

In 1977, the American National Socialist Party attempted to hold a march through Skokie, which served as a catalyst for the creation of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois by survivors living in the metropolitan Chicago area.

About 20 neo-Nazis holding signs denying the Holocaust staged a counter-rally Sunday several miles from the museum. The demonstration echoed other hate speech sounded on the streets of Chicago during Israel’s recent war with Hamas.

The museum, which recently became a beneficiary agency of the Jewish United Fund, will aid in combating all forms of “the new anti-Semitism masked in the guise of anti-Zionism,” Nasatir said.

“Among the many lessons of the Shoah is our understanding that words have meaning, and hate cannot be ignored,” he said. “This museum is an institution of words, images, history, values, education, tolerance and learning.”

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