ShowsBefore You GoBulletin BoardContactAboutSearch
Show and Features |
Culture Watch | Question of the Week | Letters of the Week |
Traveler's Aid | Library | Host's View

Keeping the Memory Alive

Next Tuesday, May 2nd, is Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day set aside by Israel and the United States to honor the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazi regime in Germany. For a tourist interested in exploring the Holocaust, there are a handful of famous sites: the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Dachau concentration camp museum outside Munich. But if you're planning to be in Chicago, there's a lesser known Holocaust memorial, a monument, just north of the city, in Skokie, Illinois, a village with a large Jewish population, including many Holocaust survivors. Our senior-contributing editor, Robert Rand, grew up in Skokie, and recently returned there to see the Holocaust monument, and to look into the story behind it.

Keeping the Memory Alive
by Robert Rand

Real Audio Listen with RealAudio          help Need audio help?

If you grew up Jewish in Skokie during the 1960s, as I did, the voice of Adolph Hitler still echoed. Our neighbors were the Herskovitzes, and they had survived the concentration camps. I remember as a little boy going over to pay them a visit, and Bea, Mrs. Herskovitz, brought me into her kitchen and offered up some milk and cookies. As she reached across the table to put down a plate, the sleeve of her shirt hiked up, revealing a row of black numbers forever etched into her flesh. I'll never forget that moment. It was my introduction to the holocaust.

The Herskovitzes were among the 7,000 or so Holocaust survivors who lived in Skokie at the time. And along with the survivors were the families of those who had perished. The Holocaust Monument that now stands in Skokie pays homage to these families, to the memories of the mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles who were murdered by the Nazis. For the tourist visiting Chicago, the monument is easy to get to. Take the 'L' to the Howard Street station, and hop on the bus to Oakton Street in downtown Skokie. The monument is on the village green, and a visit there opens a window into the past.

The statue depicts a small group, the tallest among them a Jewish freedom fighter. A belt of bullets hangs round his neck like a sash of honor. His face is strong and angry but gripped with anguish, his arms outstretched, shielding his flock: a bearded grandfather dressed in the garb of the Shtetl; a terrified young boy who clings to the grandfather; and a mother, brought to her knees with a limp, lifeless child in her arms.

Brenner: "My name is Felicia Brenner. I was born in Lodz, Poland. I am a survivor of the Holocaust. A very sad survivor."

Felicia Brenner lives a short walk from the Holocaust Monument. She is a striking woman, with a shock of black hair, sharp, knowing eyes, and a porcelain face that conveys dignity and calm. Mrs. Brenner is an activist. She speaks to students about the Holocaust. And she also writes poetry.

Brenner: "I wrote a very little poem about the coming of the year 2000. You want me to say it?"

Rand: "Yes."

Brenner: "With amazement I was reading some people were going to commit suicide, some were going to run away. The year 2000, the end of the world is coming, the Millennium. Haven't you heard or care? The end of the world already happened, in a town called Auschwitz. The earth was splitting. Fire and smoke was coming out from the crematoria swallowing innocent people. The gas chambers were working overtime. Haven't you heard the cries of the innocent? The end of the world already happened. It happened to me August 7, 1944, when both my parents were pushed into the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Don't run, care what happens around you. That's it."

Ask Felicia Brenner to talk about the Holocaust Monument, to tell you the story behind it, and she remembers the time the Nazis came to town, or at least tried to. It was 1977, and Skokie was about to experience a wrenching crisis that would pit history, morality and a search for justice against nothing less than the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

Collin: "My name is Frank Collin. I'm the party leader of the National Socialist Party of America. The purpose of the National Socialist Party of America is to create an all-white America in our lifetime. In order to do this, we have to reach the broad masses of our people with the spoken word, and this is what the fight is about at the present time as regards Operation Skokie."

Schwartz: "My name is Harvey Schwartz and I was the lawyer for the village of Skokie in the case involving Frank Collin and the Nazi Party. My first notice of the case came when I was called by the Mayor of the village of Skokie, Albert Smith."

Gathered in the Mayors office were officials from the Skokie park district, who had brought with them a letter from Frank Collin requesting a permit to allow him and his group to demonstrate in the village of Skokie on May 1st, 1977, at three in the afternoon.

Schwartz: "And what the letter described was his intention to be there with a group of members from his organization, who would be wearing Nazi-like uniforms, jackboots, brown belts, swastikas and flags with the Nazi emblem on them."

Frank Collin spoke of Jewish people at a press interview, where he invoked the words of a Roman historian.

Collin: "Tacitus gives 12 possible origins for the Jews at one point. Excrement and mud defiled the earth and when it was all gone the Jews were standing there. This is Tacitus now, not me."

Journalist: "Is that a pleasure for you to read?"

Collin: "I think it's very amusing. It shows the Romans didn't have a very high regard for the 'Chosen Ones'. What exactly they've been chosen for no one has been able to find. Perhaps we have the answer for that."

Journalist: "What? Do you have the answer?"

Collin: "You mean the final solution?"


The prospect of jackbooted Nazis displaying the swastika on the steps of Skokie's village hall galvanized the village's Holocaust survivor community. Felicia Brenner:

Brenner: "We just couldn't believe it, because the U.S. was a symbol of freedom and here we heard of the Nazis coming after us to persecute us again. It was a tremendous shock."

Meetings were organized. Letters were written to officials and to the newspapers. One of the leaders of the anti-Nazi movement received threatening phone calls late at night. This man had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He agrees to speak only anonymously, for he fears, even now, in the year 2000, a new round of threats if his name is broadcast.

Jacob: "I want you to know that we survivors live two lives. We live today's life, but at no time have we parted from what happened in those years."

This man, whom we'll call Jacob, said the planned Nazi march brought him back to Hitler's Europe in 1939.

Jacob: "And to relive it again, the pains, the wounds were not healed. They'll never heal by us, but to make us face it again, we just couldn't accept it. And we were prepared to object to it, to the end."

TV Newscast: "The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago today said the American Nazi party can hold a march in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois. The decision overturns a lower court ruling which would have kept the Nazis from marching, at least temporarily."

In April 1978, after endless court battles, the Federal Circuit Court in Chicago ruled in favor of Frank Collin's right to demonstrate in Skokie. The court held that the wearing of Nazi armbands and the display of the Nazi flag is a constitutionally protected free expression. A First Amendment exercise in its most pristine and classic form. A final appeal by Skokie to the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected. The Nazis could march. And everybody expected there would be violence. Barry Silverberg was a young officer on the Skokie police force in April 1978.

Silverberg: "I was on a roving tactical team at that time. We were riding in four-man cars, and we stopped a young boy who was 15 years old who had taken an ax from his house and he was Jewish."

Rand: "Do you remember what he told you?"

Silverberg: "He said he was gonna go kill a Nazi."

At the end of the day, having won the right in court to demonstrate in Skokie, Frank Collin went before the press.

Collin: "I have decided that because we agitated for free speech, and won our right to free speech completely, that the demonstration scheduled in Skokie is henceforth cancelled."

Skokie's attorney, Harvey Schwartz, says Collin decided to stay away from Skokie because he was afraid.

Schwartz: "I think he felt that he would be killed. And I think he would have been killed."

Instead, Collin and a handful of supporters got permission to march in Chicago, at the Federal Plaza and in Marquette Park. And, according to Harvey Schwartz, Skokie's Holocaust survivor community felt vindicated.

Schwartz: "Because Collin never set foot in Skokie. This was the ultimate justice for the survivors because this for them marked a different result than their experience in the Holocaust."


In 1987, nine years after Frank Collin won the right to march in Skokie, the Holocaust Monument was set into place on the village green. The drive to erect the monument was led by Skokie's Holocaust survivors, who had, in their fight against Frank Collin, found a new, collective voice, a strong public voice that wanted to be heard, that wanted people to remember. Rabbi Lawrence Montrose was at the dedication ceremony.

Montrose: "It was very beautiful, very soulful. A considerable number of survivors were there with their children. It was a time of very deep and sad emotion."

On the night of its dedication, the Holocaust Monument was desecrated with swastikas.

Jacob: "And the next morning, the community heard that. We were devastated."

Jacob is one of the leaders of the survivor community.

Jacob: "And we, I was strongly advocating that this should not be washed out. That the desecration should stay up, it should be a dual reminder to what the Nazis did in the Forties and what people are still capable of, that they have not learned, and there is still hatred among the people."

After a few days, the swastikas were cleaned off, and now the monument still stands, untainted on the village green. It is a worthy tourist destination, located right next to the ground Frank Collin once sought to march upon. The monument, like free speech, is etched into the Skokie landscape. It is a reminder of unthinkable injustice, a memorial to the vanquished six million, and most of all, a salve on the wounds of all who have survived.

From Skokie, this is Robert Rand for The Savvy Traveler.

Our piece on Skokie's Holocaust Monument was based on a documentary produced for public radio station WBEZ in Chicago.


Savvy Resources for the Holocaust:

American Public Media
American Public Media Home | Search | How to Listen
©2004 American Public Media |
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy