As Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches on May 2, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is marking 10 years in its state-of-the-art 65,000-square-foot Skokie home. The nation's second-largest Holocaust museum--and the world's third-largest--features groundbreaking exhibits and education programs.
One recent addition: Museum-goers can interact with holograms of Holocaust surviviors. Other exhibits, including the "Take a Stand" Center and Harvey L. Miller Family Youth Exhibition, help visitors think about how to apply the museum's lessons in their own lives.
"We're leading globally, moving from education to challenge and inspiration in a museum setting," explains CEO Susan Abrams. "The quality of our programs is remarkable and they help visitors look at our world in a different way." Here are five people who have been impacted by the museum.
Sgt. Diane Shaw (Ret.)
When Chicago Police Sgt. Diane Shaw first heard the museum was offering police training, she wondered what the Holocaust could teach police officers today. After meeting survivors, she realized Holocaust education is a vital way to help officers rethink the purpose of their work.
"As a police officer, you put your uniform on every day, you go to your beat, and you just do your job," Shaw explains; it can be hard to feel you're making a difference sometimes. Learning at the museum helps recruits see their jobs in a broader way. "We talk about how Hitler used police officers to do horrendous things," Sgt. Shaw said. Recruits then discuss ways they can "use the power of the [police] badge to help change society for the best" instead.
In her retirement, Shaw now works as a police training consultant, facilitating the Brill LEAD (Law Enforcement Action in Democracy) Program at the museum, helping train over 1,400 officers annually to better fight hate crimes and bias, safeguard against abuses of authority, and police with compassion.
"People could not comprehend the Holocaust," recalls Holocaust survivor Magda Brown of the years when she first arrived in the U.S. Born in Miskolc, Hungary, Brown survived Auschwitz and moved to Chicago in 1946. For years, she spoke about her experiences primarily to her children and close friends. Then the museum gave Brown a platform from which she can share her story with the whole community.
A member of the museum's Speakers' Bureau, Brown has shared her experiences with thousands of groups. She keeps meticulous records of every audience she addresses, and relishes the feedback that her powerful speeches evoke.
Brown recalls one student who summed up the importance of learning from survivors; he'd read about the Holocaust in school, but explained "Now I have a face to go with the story."
"I wanted to get involved in an organization that cared about the education and prevention of genocide," explains Immaculee Mukantaganira, a survivor of Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Mukantaganira called the museum with a request: "I wanted to speak at the events so I can talk about the genocide and how it can be prevented."
Mukataganira has talked about her experiences at the museum, and donated items related to the genocide, in which her daughter and husband were murdered. The museum has helped her heal: "For me, it has been a relief to talk to people who really care, and to see that there are other people who are fully committed to preventing another genocide, another Holocaust…When you see someone crying for you and for what you experienced, that helps."
An activist and educator, Henry Cervantes teaches classes on nonviolence and peacemaking for prisoners at Cook County Jail. He credits the museum for changing the way he works-and transforming his own life as well.
"Before, I would lead big marches, events, demonstrations… I was always caught up in 'how many numbers,' 'how much noise' can we make." When he met survivors at the museum, Cervantes saw that they too were committed to educating, but did it with love: "I saw peace and tranquility," Cervantes recalled. "I started speaking from love and care, rather than anger."
"What I've discovered is if you want to effect change in a community and make an impact, you have to reach people one person, one mind, at a time," Cervantes said.
Middle school teacher Keisha Rembert created the Holocaust curriculum in her western suburban school district, but it wasn't until she took her students to the museum that they truly appreciated the lessons: hearing from survivors "brought the curriculum I'd written to life."
Students are entranced by the exhibits and meetings with survivors: "It touches their hearts and makes it more real for them, and it makes them better people," Rembert explains. Learning about the Holocaust is more important now than ever, too, she notes, as ignorance and rising rates of Holocaust denial mean that many people lack basic knowledge it.
Rembert now serves on the museum's Education Advisory Committee, noting of the museum: "We're lucky to have this world-class experience on our doorstep."
The Museum is holding 10 celebration events over 10 months, including an anniversary celebration on April 4. For more information, visit ilholocaustmuseum.org/illinois-holocaust-museum-10th-anniversary/.
The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is a special grantee of JUF.
Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D. lives with her family in the northern suburbs of Chicago.