My Grandma Adi-who was born in Vienna and avoided concentration camps by escaping to Shanghai-would regularly share her family's stories of life in Europe before Nazism, the slow-boat to China, and the nine years she lived in the Jewish Ghetto of Shanghai.
As a typical adolescent boy, I was most curious about the strange things my grandma had to eat to get by in Shanghai-much to the dismay of others at the table trying to enjoy their food. More than one dinner conversation included a string of questioning where I would do my middle-school-science-student best to ask if she ate every species in the animal kingdom during her time in Shanghai.
After my grandma passed away in 2006, I was grateful that I had the chance to hear about our family's experiences directly from her during her life, even though I have so many more questions today. Tragically, her husband, my grandpa Fred (who had a story of his own harrowing escape from Berlin to Shanghai), died when I was only seven years old-and before I could understand much of anything about the war or the Holocaust, let alone ask questions about it. Of course, I now know many of the larger events of his life leading up to the war and how he, too, escaped to Shanghai where he met and married my grandma.
Still, there is little I wouldn't trade to be able to sit down with him today and pick his brain. To watch my two-year-old son ask him questions about all he experienced in life. To ask him about his reactions to the horrific and turbulent events taking place around him. To learn just a few more details about his life before the war. To understand a little bit more about his experiences and to put our own lives-and the tumultuous events of our own world today-into perspective.
My family is not alone. Sadly, a time will come when there will be no living witnesses to relate the stories of monumental loss and tragedy to future generations-stories and lessons that are critical to ensuring that the events of the Holocaust never repeat themselves. Volumes of literature and countless hours of interviews have been dutifully written and recorded by the USC Shoah Foundation and others. But there is no substitute for actual interaction with survivors and hearing first-hand the stories that are as important to hear today as ever.
That predicament is just one driving force behind the efforts of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center to establish the ground-breaking Take a Stand Center, which features the cutting-edge technology of the Abe and Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience.
At the premier of the Take a Stand Center, I had the privilege of taking in the Survivor Stories Experience of Aaron Elster, the museum's first vice president, who as a young boy survived the war by hiding in a Polish family's attic. First, a video presented Elster's story of survival. Afterward, participants were invited to ask Elster-who appeared in the theater as a hologram on stage-anything about his life and experiences. I could not help but appreciate the sheer power that this experience will wield in educating future generations about the Holocaust-including the hundreds of school children who make their way through the museum every single day. These children-and someday my own son-will undoubtedly be inspired by Aaron's story to one day take a stand against the bigotry, hatred, and intolerance that persists in communities around the world today.
It is the invaluable work of projects like the Take a Stand Center that hit home for me and inspire me to be a part of the museum's Young Professionals Committee (YPC). The Committee strives to accomplish the museum's twin goals: To serve as a landmark Holocaust museum and education center, while encouraging others to be upstanders in their communities in order to make "Never Again" a reality.
YPC will host an exclusive live performance by singer/songwriter and actor Tyler Hilton at the Park West on Thursday, Jan. 25. For more information and to register, visit
Michael B. Bregman is an attorney with Ruff, Freud, Breems & Nelson, Ltd., and Co-Chair of the Young Professional Committee of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.