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.)

More on the Museum

This post appears today–in a slightly different version–on my Practicing Writing blog.

I am preparing this post on Wednesday night for posting early on Thursday. I have to be honest with you: I’m having a hard time focusing on anything but the terrible events that unfolded today at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

As some of you know, much of my writing–in every genre–has been influenced by my identity as the elder granddaughter of German Jews who fled to the United States in the late 1930s. I visited the USHMM shortly after it opened. At the time, I was especially moved by “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story,” an exhibit that was designed with children in mind. (The fact that in the exhibit, Daniel’s fictional sister is named “Erika” only added to the emotion of the visit.)

Although my sister’s two children are still too young to understand this part of our family history, someday we will need to explain to them why the great-grandparents for whom they are named left Germany. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’ve thought of bringing my niece and nephew to see the USHMM exhibit in Washington one day to help with that difficult task.

I am praying for the family of Stephen Tyrone Johns, the brave guard who stopped the shooter–and paid for that bravery with his life.

Horror at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Web site:

There are no words to express our grief and shock over today’s events at the Museum, which took the life of Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns. Officer Johns, who died heroically in the line of duty, served on the Museum’s security staff for six years. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Officer Johns’s family. We have made the decision to close the Museum Thursday, June 11, in honor of Officer Johns and our flags will be flown at half mast in his memory.

May Officer Johns’s memory be for blessing.

I can’t quite form other thoughts in words just yet.

Museum of Jewish Heritage Seeks Emerging Jewish Artists

Here’s an excerpt from a press release I received today from the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York:

After three years of sold-out shows which the Downtown Express called “authentic, funny — and yes, subversive…” the Museum is seeking submissions by up-and-coming local Jewish artists for possible inclusion in this year’s event. The winners will be showcased in a dynamic evening of cutting-edge comedy, music, storytelling, and film at the Fourth Annual New York’s Best Emerging Jewish Artists at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust on Wednesday, June 17. The show will take place in Edmond J. Safra Hall, the Museum’s 375-seat-theater, which features state-of-the-art light and sound systems, and a Fazioli grand piano.

Filmmakers, musicians, singers, comedians, poets, spoken word artists, and dancers are invited to send performance samples by April 13 to Sarah Wolff at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, NY, NY 10280. Inquiries may be sent to Swolff(at)mjhnyc(dot)org with Emerging Artist in the subject line.

To be eligible, performers must: be at least 18 years old by May 1; submit materials informed by Jewish themes or identity; and be based in the New York tri-state area. Finalists may be required to audition at the Museum for the judging committee.

Submit a maximum of two (2), five to ten minute samples in DVD, or CD format – cued to play or including a cue time – that best represents the work that would be performed if selected. Do not submit originals; materials will not be returned. Samples must be labeled individually with the applicant’s name, address, phone number, e-mail address, and title. Include a brief description of the work. If possible, also enclose artist bios and/or photos. Please include a self-addressed stamped envelope.

Submissions must be post-marked or received no later than 5 p.m. on April 13.

Up to four winners will be notified by phone by May 13 and will receive $250 for the performance.

Nextbook’s Call for Film Festival Criticism

According to its Web site, Nextbook is partnering with The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center “to bring an exciting opportunity to our New York area readers: the chance to be a film critic-for-a-day. If you attend any of the 32 screenings that are part of the 2009 New York Jewish Film Festival, you will be eligible to submit a review to be published on Nextbook.org.”

Nextbook will be giving away two tickets for each of the festival’s screenings. But whether you respond to the ticket offer or not (or in time to obtain complimentary admission), you’ll still be welcome to review festival films and submit them to Nextbook. The filmgoer who writes the best review will receive a boxed set of the Nextbook/Schocken Jewish Encounters book series, plus a one-year membership to The Jewish Museum.

Details and guidelines, as well as information on the festival films, are all available at the Web site.