Rick Hirschhaut's 'bittersweet' farewell

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Along these lines, the museum last year produced a Midwest Emmy-winning documentary film, "Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered," that tells the story of the threatened neo-Nazi march and also illuminates other facets of racism, then and now. The film will be broadcast nationally on PBS in April, with a date for the Chicago rebroadcast yet to be announced (disclosure: I'm interviewed in the film).

What is Hirschhaut most proud of?

"I think the police training," he says, referring to the museum's Law Enforcement and Democracy Initiative, which trains members of the Chicago Police Department and others. "Every recruit in the police department, before they graduate from the Chicago Police Academy, spends a full day in the museum. … They engage in interactive exercises that reveal the failure of law enforcement to intervene and object to the persecution as it was unfolding.

"The first session we ever held (was in) August of 2011, and to see dozens upon dozens of recruits, Chicago police recruits, in their dress blues that day streaming into the building gave me goose bumps because of what it represented. Where was that protection during the Shoah?

"That duty and that oath to protect and to serve was completely usurped during that time. And to see officers walking into this building with reverence, with open minds, with an eagerness to learn and absorb and make this institution part of who they hope to be as law enforcement officers, as protectors of the most vulnerable in our society, to me that was like, 'OK, that's why we're here.'"

If there's something Hirschhaut wishes he and the museum could have done better, it's simply "to break through that veneer of apprehension and fear and hesitation that lives in too many people's minds when they contemplate visiting a Holocaust museum," he says.

"This is not a sad and depressing place. It tells a terrible story, a terrible history, but it does so through the lens of sheer human will to survive, to endure and to move forward. There is an unbridled optimism that courses throughout this building," which was designed by architect Stanley Tigerman to lead visitors first through a darkened wing and then to a brighter, lighter one.

'Really more than a job'

On the financial end, museum leaders hope to retire its debt of $26 million by the 10th anniversary in 2019, "if not sooner," Hirschhaut says. And the museum is three years into the process of pursuing accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, he adds.

Other challenges await.

"We're now heading into another set of choppy waters," Pritzker says. "The storm ahead is that in the next 10 to 20 years, the survivors will no longer be alive … and the test of what Rick and everyone created here is: Are we getting the job done even in their absence?

"And so that is the challenge, I think, for the next director … to help set a course for reaching that, for obtaining that vision."

A national search for the museum's next executive director is underway.

Hirschhaut has not decided what he'll do next, but, he says, "I believe I've helped to take the museum as far as I can take it." Noting that he and his wife, a daughter of survivors, are soon to be empty nesters, he believes the time for a change was right.

"It's been 10 years, 10 very intense but extraordinary years," Hirschhaut says.

His wife, Susan, observes that work on the museum was 24/7 for Hirschhaut and, really, their entire family.

"What Rick did for a living was really more than a job, and its presence in the family was really the equivalent of having another family member," she says. "I think stepping away is going to be felt with mixed emotions."

Certainly Hirschhaut, who will be honored by the museum during its annual Humanitarian Awards Dinner on March 20 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, has won the admiration of many.

"We started off as strictly a Holocaust museum going back to Main Street in Skokie," Elster says. Now, "We're not just a Jewish museum. And he was partially responsible that we deal with genocide of any kind, and so we've come a long way."

Adds Fritzshall, "When we started on Main Street in the very beginning, we had nothing. … And he's brought the museum to where we are today."

Not bad for a decade's work.


Twitter @howardreich

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