Holocaust Museum: Students hear first-hand lessons about genocide
Holocaust survivor Walter Reed of Wilmette talks to students, including Chicagoland Jewish High School senior Miranda Smerling, 17, of Deerfield Nov. 13 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media
For more photos from this event visit www.skokie.suntimes.com
Updated: December 23, 2012 6:16AM
SKOKIE — Since 1990, all public and elementary schools in Illinois have been required to teach the Holocaust, the first state to adopt such a mandate.
But not everyone receives the education that more than 160 students from throughout Illinois experienced Nov. 13 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.
High school students came from as far away as Champaign and Plainfield, from as close as Skokie and Niles, Deerfield and Highland Park, Wilmette and Northbrook. They arrived from Libertyville and Mundelein, Glenview and Winnetka, and from many towns in between.
For this day, their teachers were not academic leaders handing down lessons from textbooks, but articulate and passionate Holocaust survivors sharing first-hand accounts of genocide from more than 65 years ago.
“Your being here today and really giving life and animation to this building is the fulfillment of the vision of the survivors — remarkably courageous, heroic and ultimately optimistic people that you’re about to meet,” Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut said.
The museum has had many special events in its brief run of more than three years, but Student Leadership Day reflects the heart and soul of the institution as well as any of them. A central tenet of the museum is not merely to display comprehensive World War II history to visitors but to serve as an invaluable teaching resource for future generations who live in a world where genocide is still not extinct.
Even Hirschhaut said the museum, conceived by survivors themselves, did not need to be built if its only purpose was to tell the story of European Jewery and others during World War II.
“This building is in place for each of you to own and to make part of how you view the world,” Hirschhaut said. “And how you make your individual universe of obligation distinctly your own.”
Holocaust Museum Director of Education Noreen Brand said much thought was given to which students would attend Student Leadership Day. Students were nominated inside their own schools, but Brand said the museum wasn’t looking for extroverts or class presidents; more typical of the high school students on hand Nov. 13 were quieter kids who absorbed critical lessons and would perhaps share them with classmates in one form or another.
Many museum leaders see the institution’s most important challenge as being able to reach future generations. That’s reflected even in the basement’s extraordinary Miller Family Youth Exhibition, which teaches children at young ages to be kind to each other and to stand up to acts of bullying.
The education component of the museum is why Student Leadership Day exists and why a major banking institution such as PNC sponsors it, said Aavo Reinfeldt, PNC executive vice president of corporate banking.
Reinfeldt wants the day to rattle the “comfort zones” of students who attend. He encouraged students to step away from their comfort zones whenever they can.
That can be attending a new temple, synagogue or mosque, eating at an ethnic restaurant they usually don’t frequent and meeting and talking to people of different backgrounds.
“Education is great because it creates creativity and conversation,” Reinfeldt said. “It’s with us all of our lives. You have a choice. You can accept it or you can go back to your shell, become very comfortable, but it’s not a place I want to be. I want to become more uncomfortable in my life because it makes me a better human being.”