Illinois Holocaust Museum
- darkometer rating: 7 -
The top dark attraction in the Chicago
area (and beyond), this relatively recently opened Holocaust
museum distinguishes itself from others through A) a higher-than-average input by survivors – many of whom had settled in the suburb of Skokie after WWII
– and B) by looking deeper into the aftermath, post-war life, and resistance against a rise of neo-Nazism.
First and foremost: Skokie is a place where a large number of Holocaust
survivors settled following their ordeals during the Nazi
era and WWII
(Florida was another preferred new home). The Jewish community in Skokie was at times the largest group in the town's population mix, at nearly 60% (though this is no longer the case today).
The survivors were mostly busy rebuilding their lives and integrating into American society and culture, and memories were not openly spoken about. That changed, however, when in 1978 a neo-Nazi group was planning a march in Skokie. This sparked resistance against such an obvious provocation and Skokie's Holocaust survivors started to speak up for the first time. Even though the protesters eventually lost their case on the grounds of the First Amendment right to assemble, it triggered a movement towards more open commemoration and education about the Holocaust and Nazism.
In Skokie this led to the founding of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. A first small museum was opened in 1981 on Main Street. Their founding motto: “Remember the Past, Transform the Future”. Nearly 30 years on, their work culminated in the opening on 19 April 2009 of the large, state-of-the-art museum you see today.
The design of the exhibition apparently had some input from a former director of Yad Vashem
, and the whole building's design is full of symbolism.
For instance, the south-east wing, where the entrance is located, is clad in dark grey, while the north-west wing, with the exit, is bright white. The former has no open windows and is characterized by stark square shapes, while the latter features various rounded forms and has large windows to let light in.
There are also some more distinctly Jewish symbolic allusions, e.g. the two stylized columns outside are supposed to resemble the columns of Solomon's Temple …
What there is to see:
Before (or after) you actually go inside the museum building you could take a look at the Fountain of the Righteous on the south side of the complex. It's arranged around a semi-circular pool lined by a concrete wall onto which names of various people are affixed who helped Jews during the Holocaust
and thus were awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem
. You see familiar names, such as Oskar Schindler (see Krakow
), Raoul Wallenberg
and Chiune Sugihara (see Kaunas
), but also some less prominent ones.
The whole museum complex is quite large – and includes, as the official name suggests, lots of education/research facilities (including a library) on top of the museum as such. But for most regular visitors it will be the main permanent exhibition that will be of most interest. So let's begin with that.
The exhibition is organized largely chronologically, but with relevant thematic topics given special emphasis along the way. It begins with a short introductory film. This is basically just a collage of sound bites from the videos featured later in the exhibition in their full length. So it remains a bit unclear what this collage is supposed to do (given it's so clipped and hashed up there is no single narrative in it – it's more like a disorganized movie trailer; and personally I found that a bit odd).
Thematically, the early sections illustrate life before and during the rise of Nazism, and the increasing dominance of Nazi
ideology and propaganda. There are in fact quite a few documents and artefacts relating to this, even a somewhat crude replica of a Reich
's eagle complete with its talons clutching a swastika. Video screens play eyewitness reports by survivors.
The pogroms of 9 November (aka “Kristallnacht” – 'Night of Broken Glass') are a special topic highlighted here, including by a life-size mock-up of a broken synagogue window and door.
In the “World Response” section, special mention is made of the unsuccessful voyage of the St Louis and its subsequent fate, before the exhibition moves on into the theme of WWII
The next few sections are predictably rather on the grim side. First the further tightening up of Nazi repression against Jews, the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen
… some of it illustrated by very graphic photographic material, e.g. of the mass shootings at Skede
, Babi Yar
. Also on display is a copy of that infamous coffin map of the Baltics in which Estonia
is marked “judenfrei” ('free from Jews').
The Wannsee conference
gets a section of its own as we head for the main phase of the Holocaust, the “Final Solution
”, but before we get to that, there's an interesting small section about the ways in which the Nazis tried (rather successfully) to deceive the world about the true nature of the concentration camps
, in particular through their propaganda film made at Theresienstadt
(of which excerpts are shown on video).
The reality of the camps is illustrated amply, including some of the usual artefacts such as a camp inmate's striped clothes. But the key artefact, and by far the largest object in the entire museum, is an authentic cattle rail car of the type used by the Nazis in the deportations to the camps in the east. It is suspended on a platform above the level of the main exhibition but you can use a ramp/stairs to walk up to it and peek in. It's bare inside – but still, with the knowledge of the conditions in these transports it's quite a poignant installation.
The exhibition proper continues with scale models of the Belzec death camp
as well as a particularly gruesome one of an Auschwitz
gas chamber (with its roof open so you can see inside) – complete with little white figurines of victims lining up outside after selection, getting undressed in the changing rooms, and, worst of all, dying in agony in the actual gas chamber as Nazi guards throw in their canisters of Zyklon B
. It's emotionally chilling – and I could well imagine that it's a bit too much for some visitors.
As if to compensate for such graphic grimness, the exhibition then moves on to somewhat more uplifting topics, such as the good deeds of the rescuers, resistance efforts and those trying to alert the outside world to what was happening in the death camps, e.g. members of the Polish
resistance, but also – remarkably – the odd Nazi from within the system. These reports were largely dismissed, though, and not acted upon by the Allies.
And so the murdering continued, even as the war was being lost by Nazi Germany
. The evacuation of the camps, the death marches
, and eventually liberation/defeat are logically the next topics covered.
The Nuremberg Trials
then get a section in the context of “political aftermath”, as does the issue of survivors' “Return to Life” after the war. Again, videos playing accounts of personal stories of Skokie Holocaust survivors are the most significant elements here.
Most Holocaust exhibitions don't even extend as far as this and generally don't go beyond, so this and the following sections about settling in and adapting to the American way of life, and how difficult it was for the survivors, is a bonus of this particular museum.
This is also true for the story of the neo-Nazi march on Skokie in the late 1970s and how it kick-started an end to suppressing memories. Instead it gave rise to resisting renewed Nazism through open commemoration and education – basically what brought this museum into existence eventually (see background
The finale of the exhibition is a big-screen film that connects the Holocaust to the present day, as it were. In the process, the film questions the familiar pledge “never again”, since genocide
has of course happened again, and again, namely in Cambodia
At the time of my visit (in late August 2015) there was also a special exhibition about the Cambodian genocide, its aftermath and the current trials of perpetrators. Another, smaller exhibition showed photos from Srebrenica (especially of the forensic investigations).
In addition there was another temporary photo exhibition entitled “Through Soviet Jewish Eyes”, which featured some stunning war photography from USSR
archives. Included among the images on display were both versions of one of the most famous Soviet propaganda photos ever – namely the one showing two Red Army soldiers raising the Soviet red flag on top of the Reichstag
in 1945. The original photo showed one of the soldiers wearing two watches – evidence of looting! So for the official version the second watch was airbrushed out and to add “drama” to the scene some thick billowing dark smoke was added in the background. So much for photographs as authentic evidence …
Furthermore there was a separate (permanent) section for younger visitors with a strong emphasis on education and tolerance called “Make a Difference”(similar to the equivalent bits at the MOT
, but apparently aimed at an even younger audience here).
Upstairs a Room of Remembrance and a Hall of Reflection provide spaces set aside for precisely those purposes. Also added is a separate “Legacy of Absence Gallery” displaying works by various artists which in some way or another reflect on the genocide theme.
The museum also organizes events with Holocaust survivors/witnesses as speakers. If you plan ahead you can specifically request a speaker from the museum's still substantial pool of witnesses/survivors (see ilholocaustmuseum.org under > book a speaker).
The museum offers guided tours through the main exhibition too, but for visitors who already have a certain grasp of the subject matter, this is not really necessary. The quality of the guided tour will also vary from guide to guide, and from reviews I've read I gather that the quality of guided tours can be “mixed”. I would recommend doing it independently and at your own pace because that way you can skip familiar bits and concentrate on those that really set this museum apart from others (i.e. especially the videos).
Finally, the museum naturally also has a shop. This mostly sells books, and there were some very interesting finds to be made – so allow some time for a browse here as well.
On balance I must say I was quite impressed with this museum's take on its difficult subject matter. I'd even go as far as saying that it does at least as good a job as the more famous US Holocaust Memorial Museum
in Washington D.C.
! I was particularly impressed by the way the survivors' testimonies were woven into the whole narrative, precisely where they fitted in thematically, whereas in other similar institutions (e.g. the Holocaust Museum LA
) videos of survivor interviews are often added in bulk, as an afterthought, as it were. Here, the fact that they were interspersed at their various topical reference points made them much more digestible for visitors and also more relevant to the flow of the whole exhibition.
All in all then: highly recommended!
at 9603 Woods Drive on the north-western edge of Skokie, Illinois, some 15 miles (25 km) north of downtown Chicago
, Illinois, USA
Access and costs:
Quite far out of Chicago
, and in a fairly isolated place on the edge of Skokie, but not difficult to get to by car; a bit trickier by public transport. An admission fee is charged.
Details: Getting to the museum is by far the easiest by car, as it is just a stone's throw from the main north-south Edens Expressway (I-94) – take exit 35 (Old Orchard) and follow the signs. There's plenty of free parking right at the museum.
Getting there by public transport can be a bit of an odyssey. Coming from Chicago you'd first need to get a train to Skokie itself (via Howard) or to Howard Station, then take a bus (Nos. 54 or 205 respectively) to Old Orchard Road & Woods Drive and then walk the rest. The museum's website ilholocaustmuseum.org also has a route planner and downloadable maps.
Admission: 12 USD (seniors and students 8 USD) – the museum website also lists a 6 USD children's rate for juniors 5 to 11 years old, but at the same time advises that the main permanent exhibition is only recommended for visitors from 12 years old.
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Thursdays to 8 p.m. – closed on certain Jewish holidays as well as on Christmas and New Year's Day; earlier closing times (2 p.m.) on some other holidays. If in doubt better check ahead on the museum's website.
Time required: The museum's website says that the “average visiting time is two to three hours”, but if you want to read everything and watch all the videos and also give the additional exhibitions adequate time, you can easily end up needing more time than that.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Chicago
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Chicago
- IHM 1 - outside
- IHM 2 - fountain of the righteous
- IHM 3 - two obvious choices
- IHM 4 - exhibition
- IHM 5 - Skokie taking a stand against neo-Nazis
- IHM 6 - education section for the young
- IHM 7 - space for events
- IHM 8 - hall of names
- IHM 9 - reflecting hall