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Rick Hirschhaut's 'bittersweet' farewell

Rick Hirschhaut exits the Holocaust Museum he helped build, now a major institution for Skokie and the world

Howard Reich

5:53 PM EST, February 6, 2014

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It's Friday morning in Skokie, and several elementary school kids are huddling around two large TV screens, intently watching Sam Harris describe what happened to him during the Holocaust and how he's trying to prevent it from happening again to children like them.

The kids barely move during Harris' terrifying, inspiring taped soliloquy, and they're not the only ones struck by what they're seeing and hearing.

Elsewhere in the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, a couple of dozen high schoolers are taking turns walking gingerly into a dark, ominous rail car of the type and vintage used to transport Jews and others to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. The teens do not talk or even whisper very much.

What none of them knows is that on this day, the man who has led the quest to build and grow this remarkable museum will be saying farewell, content that he has helped create and sustain an edifice that soon will be in someone else's care. The journey to this moment has taken Rick Hirschhaut — and the uncounted volunteers, museum professionals and funders who joined him — fully 10 years. For the survivors whose story the museum tells, the struggle to create this place stretches back further, to the late 1970s.

All of this weighs on Hirschhaut on this chilly morning of Jan. 31 as he stands in the main lobby of the museum watching a steady stream of students and adults pour into the place.

"I'm trying very hard to exhale," says Hirschhaut, 53, a few hours before he steps down as the first executive director of the museum, following through on a decision he made some months ago.

"It's bittersweet."

To soften the sting of Hirschhaut's imminent departure, two survivors who have worked closely with him drop in unexpectedly to say goodbye, take pictures, hug him, thank him, wish him well.

But, of course, they, too, are quite moved simply to be back in this sacred space.

"Being in Auschwitz, being in Birkenau, I never dreamed that one day there would be a place like this," says Fritzie Fritzshall, who survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Fritzshall was involved in the survivors' first planning meetings in the 1970s and became president of the museum in 2010.

"We dreamed of food," continues Fritzshall, recalling the war years. "We dreamed of freedom. We dreamed of family. We never dreamed of something like this in Skokie."

Adds Aaron Elster, a survivor and vice president of the museum, "We couldn't have done it by ourselves.

"If it were just the survivors, we'd still be on Main Street," adds Elster, referring to the Skokie storefront museum that opened in 1984 in a small, squat building that had been used as a storage facility for dental supplies.

Now he stands in a rather grander space that stretches 65,000 square feet and was built for $50 million. Its $10 million annual operating budget dwarfs the $250,000 per year that kept the doors open in the peak years on Main Street.

Winning hearts, minds

Few individuals have worked harder to launch and nurture the sprawling edifice, near the Westfield Old Orchard mall, than Hirschhaut, who put together a staff of 40 (including security) and a small army of 400-plus volunteers (160 of whom are docents who undergo training of at least six months). Hirschhaut is quick to acknowledge, however, that he didn't necessarily want the job when he first heard about it.

"It took a while for me to really wrap my head around the idea of stepping away from the established, venerable civil rights organization where I had many years invested," says Hirschhaut, referring to the more than two decades he had spent at the Anti-Defamation League, the last 10 in Chicago.

And even when Hirschhaut was persuaded in 2004 to take on the museum project by board Chair J.B. Pritzker and then-President Harris — whom the kids are watching on the video — Hirschhaut didn't necessarily anticipate the battles yet to come. Or the nature of the opponents.

"We clearly faced some resistance to the idea; not out of malice but out of an inability to appreciate in the early stages the kind of impact that this institution could have (and) is, indeed, having upon the entire Chicago region and the Midwest," says Hirschhaut, citing the 500,000-plus people who have visited the museum since it opened on April 19, 2009.

The inaugural date was significant: It was the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in Poland in 1943, when Jews launched a rebellion against the Nazis' overwhelming force and were annihilated. President Bill Clinton, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and others flew to Skokie to be present at the occasion of the museum's opening.

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."

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.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich