Rick Hirschhaut's 'bittersweet' farewell

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But years earlier, many people could not see the need for such a place.

"The resistance or the head winds were: Why do we need this major institution, or an institution of this scale and scope, when we already had a magnificent museum in Washington?" recalls Hirschhaut, referring to the massive United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has received an estimated 36 million visitors since its dedication in 1993.

"Some well-respected voices in the Chicago Jewish community did not share the initial excitement, let's put it that way," Hirschhaut says. "And (they) even saw the effort not only as unnecessary because of the existence of (the museum in) Washington but also as a potential drain upon limited, precious resources to be put to other uses in the community.

"There were also some who questioned … placing the museum in Skokie versus downtown (Chicago)."

So Hirschhaut, Pritzker, Fritzshall, Elster and many others had to win over hearts and minds.

For starters, they argued that the museum in Washington, though immense and indispensable, was not enough, in part because since 1990 the state of Illinois mandated that students study the Holocaust.

"Where are those students going to receive this instruction?" Hirschhaut would ask skeptics. "We did our homework. There are roughly 2.5 million eligible students in Illinois who are required to (study the subject). Ninety-five percent of them will never get to Washington. … So we felt very strongly that creating this experience, enabling this experience to happen here in Chicago was an imperative, really, and people have come to understand that."

Of the half-million-plus people who have visited the museum, a majority have been students. In 2013, the museum reached a new peak attendance of 110,000, and 60,000 of those were students on field trips.

As for the fear that the museum would be chasing the same financial support as other institutions, "I don't think it's true that there's a sort of competition in terms of funding," says Hal Lewis, president of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, a long-standing institution on South Michigan Avenue that might be viewed as a direct competitor. "I prefer to think of this as two organizations with distinct missions."

Finally, regarding resistance to the museum's suburban location, "I think there's no doubt that Skokie, as the home of so many survivors, was the natural place for a Holocaust museum," Pritzker says. "That's obvious.

"And then there's the secondary and less obvious reason why it should be in Skokie, which is when you go around the world and say the word ' Skokie,' it literally conjures up in people's minds the fight that took place with the neo-Nazis attempting to march," adds Pritzker, referring to the threatened march on Skokie by Frank Collin and his brown-shirted, swastika-wearing compatriots in 1977 and '78.

Collin's actions caused an uproar among the survivors, became an international media phenomenon and was litigated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the court affirmed Collin's First Amendment right to march, he took his demonstration to downtown Chicago, perhaps anticipating that survivors and their supporters would meet him in the streets bearing arms, as they promised.

That episode galvanized the survivors to organize, speak out and begin their journey to educate the world about the Holocaust and genocide via their museum.

Hirschhaut joined the cause a decade ago because he believed that "the little building at 4225 Main St. in Skokie was not of the appropriate level that the survivors deserved," he says.

The goal was to grow the institution "to be equal parts education center and museum … that this be a place where we would offer a meaningful and deep encounter with history, the Shoah," he says, using what's roughly the Hebrew term for the Holocaust. "Go deep into the years 1933 to '45, but (then) draw from that experience and present universal lessons that have contemporary relevance."

A larger purpose

The museum certainly has worked to connect the story of the Holocaust to its implications for the present and future.

As children enter the Harvey L. Miller Family Youth Exhibition, where the video of Harris and other survivors plays, they cannot miss a sign in large type: "We can choose not to be bystanders. We have the power to be upstanders."

Then they pass what look like lockers you would find in any school, but each opens up to reveal a beautifully backlit display on the stories of brave souls such as Miep Gies, one of the heroes who helped hide Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam in 1944; Rosa Parks, who refused to go to the back of the bus in 1955; Hudson Taylor, who launched Athlete Ally, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality in sports in 2010; and others.

After walking through exhibits on the history of the Holocaust, visitors come to the Pritzker Theater, where the 10-minute documentary film "Legacy" features footage of President Barack Obama and Rwandan genocide survivor Clemantine Wamariya encouraging everyone to fight prejudice. The last words on the screen say simply: "Now it is up to you."

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