A Visit to the New Illinois Holocaust Museum: Guest Post from B.J. Epstein

A Visit to the New Illinois Holocaust Museum

by B.J. Epstein

On my last trip back to my hometown of Chicago, my grandparents, mother, and I went to the new Illinois Holocaust Museum. Now, I’ll admit at the outset that I am very reluctant to criticize any museum that teaches people about the Holocaust and similar events, because I feel that such places are so important. That being said, however, I did feel there was much that ought to be rethought at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

The museum is in a lovely, spacious new purpose-built building (oddly, however, the entrance is at the back of the building). The main exhibit reviews the history of the Holocaust, from pre-war Germany up through the end of the war and what happened to the refugees. It is powerful, as it should be. The information is mainly given via video screens and posters, so there is a strange lack of objects. Perhaps that is intentional, to remind visitors of what victims did not have. But it can also lead to a lack of tangibility to the situation, even though there were a few artifacts as well. Still, the videos included much suvivor testimony and should be viewed by schoolchildren. In the middle of the exhibit is an original rail car, used during World War 2. To stand in that car, to experience how dark and crowded and frightening it must have been, is to get chills and to be moved to tears.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum also has a art exhibit, featuring artists and works from all over the world. Here the focus is not the Holocaust itself but rather “absence”, and as such it looks at Rwanda, Korean women forced to be prostitutes in Japan, the Gulag, and other tragic events.

In addition, there is a video on holocausts in general, an educational center, and, of course, a gift shop.

As I said, I was at the museum with my grandparents. They were not the only older people there. So what I wondered was why there were no benches. The main exhibit snaked its way through the building and each of the many videos was a few minutes long. So it is natural to expect a few chairs or benches, especially for the older visitors. That doesn’t seem to be very well thought-out to me. It is not a welcoming gesture, unless the intention is to make people uncomfortable and aware of how much they have in comparison to Holocaust victims.

Despite these various complaints, I did appreciate my visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Museums like this are important and we owe it to the next generation to take them here and teach them about this tragedy. Perhaps then situations such as the Holocaust itself or, on a smaller scale, what happened at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum last week won’t happen again.

(Editor’s Note: This new museum is located in Skokie, Ill., a place I first learned about via the story of the U.S. Supreme Court case, National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie.)