"Are there bones here?" was the first question asked by a student of our docent, Lana Lake. We were in the lobby of the Illinois Museum & Holocaust Education Center in Skokie in the spring. The student was part of a group of teens brought there by the Lawndale Christian Development Center (LCDC).
"This trip is the first of its kind, and will enable our youth to make the connections between the history of their school and the similar struggles faced by Jews and African Americans to overcome oppression, injustice and violence," said Stacey Flint, LCDC's associate executive director. The trip was sponsored by Rachel Cowen, a partner at DLA Piper.
LCDC was established in 1987 by Lawndale Community Church.
The students themselves attend The Lawndale Community Academy, formerly the Jewish People's Institute. "The Institute," Flint explained, "was perhaps the central cultural center of North Lawndale during the first half of the 20th century. The building provided classes and recreation for adults and children. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks suggests that the designer, Adler Planetarium architect Ernest A. Grunsfeld, Jr., gave the building, 'a distinctive Byzantine-influenced exterior, visually interpreting the Middle-Eastern origins of Judaism.'"
To the student's question about bones, Lake responded that it was a different type of museum. Indeed, it is the only one of its kind in the state. Designed by Jewish architect Stanley Tigerman, its 2009 opening was keynoted by Bill Clinton and Elie Wiesel. The building's dark half represents the descent into the ashes of the Shoah (Holocaust), while the bright half symbolizes the ascent to freedom in America and the nascent Israel.
One student named James had learned about the Holocaust for the first time when he was in sixth grade, he said, from a social studies book. His friend Malik has only heard about it last year. Tabitha heard about it at home, both from her parents and, she said, "The History Channel."
Lake expertly pitched her presentation the students' level of appreciation. She compared Jewish persecution under the Nuremberg Laws to a form of bullying. To visualize the loss of six million Jews, Lake said, "Imagine all of Chicago and its suburbs, empty." She also gave the students ample time to explore the exhibits on their own.
They viewed exhibits on shtetl life, anti-Semitic propaganda, eugenics, racial profiling, the Berlin Olympics, Kristallnacht, and the ghetto. After we filed though a cattle car used to haul Jews to the death camps, Lake then turned to the next phase of the story-mass extermination.
Later, Lake spoke of those who recorded the testimony of the survivors, Nazi hunters like Simon Wiesenthal, Aliyah Bet, and the Eichmann trial. There also was an exhibit on the Nazi march in Skokie and the protests of it, and the subsequent state legislation mandating Holocaust education.
Lake's conclusion to the students was that the greatest crime was silence: "Be aware, make choices, get involved, and speak up," she urged them.
After the tour, we joined groups from other high schools to hear the story of survivor Zev Rogalin. He gave details about life, and death, in the ghettos and camps, and of his part in Israel's War of Independence. When the WWII ended, he said, he was 19 years old and weighed 66 pounds; today, he is a great-grandfather.
During the exhibit, one student approached me and asked what must be the central question of the entire Holocaust: "Why did Hitler kill the Jews?" As if we will ever know.
The IllinoisHolocaust Museum& Education Center is a partner in serving our community, supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.