The life and times of Skokie; to me, A10-year-old in 1964, Skokie looked like the most magical place on earth. Never before had I seen such pristine streets and perfect sidewalks. Never before had I ogled block after block of newly built homes bordered by neatly manicured, deep-green lawns.
If Skokie was an escape from urban decay for a kid from Chicago, it was something close to paradise for my parents and an estimated 8,000 Holocaust survivors like them who poured into the Chicago suburb in the 1950s, '60s and 70s. Though I didn't know it then, or for decades to come, my mother, Sonia, had spent much of her childhood and adolescence hiding from Nazis in the forests of Poland. At age 16 in 1947, she had arrived in Chicago, where she would meet and marry my father, Robert--himself a survivor of concentration camps and death marches.
In this little town, barely 10 miles square, on Chicago's northern border, survivors could find blintzes and bialys at innumerable Jewish delis, buy kosher meats at butcher shops where everyone spoke Yiddish and stroll on High Holy Days to services at storefront shuls without fear of harassment. Here, they built an American shted, complete with Hebrew schools, Israeli bakeries, Old World tailor shops and quaint Judaica stores. "It was a dream of a place," recalls survivor Regina Samelson, who still lives in Skokie.
WHY DID THE SURVIVORS FLOCK TO Skokie? For starters, it was close to Chicago, so they could ride the bus or bike to jobs in the city.
But most wouldn't have known about Skokie--Potawatomi for swamp--in the first place if hadn't been for savvy--and often Jewish--real-estate developers and builders who courted post-World War II Jews yearning to move out of the city and up to suburbia.
"Previously, Jews hadn't felt welcome in some suburbs," journalist Ron Grossman once wrote in the Chicago Tribune. "The first Jewish congregation in [nearby] Evanston had to buy property through a third party, as it wasn't popular to sell to a Jewish institution. But realizing the market potential of [returned] war veterans, developers of the late 1940s advertised in older Jewish neighborhoods that one and all would be welcomed in Skokie."
The Skokie Village Master Plan of 1946 specifically called for single-family homes to be built instead of apartments, so that people would set down roots. And that's precisely what the survivors and other urban Jews wanted--a home of their own, no matter how small, in a safe corner of suburbia. Word spread quickly. "It was in the papers, in the magazines," Auschwitz survivor Ben Kryska told me. "I had friends ... in the construction business. They said, 'Come to Skokie.'"
And so they did, in an exodus from tough neighborhoods in the South, West and North Sides of Chicago. They migrated to a village that, by 1975, was 57 percent Jewish, according to estimates by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Still, even in this safe haven populated with middle-class and blue-collar workers like themselves, the survivors lived in a world apart, socializing mostly with each other and going out of their way to minimize attention to themselves.
This was an era when few Americans wanted to hear from survivors about what had happened to them in the Holocaust, so the survivors barely spoke about their pasts outside their tightly drawn circles. In this pre-therapy age, survivors were simply counseled to move on. "Barbara, forget the past," people told Warsaw ghetto survivor Barbara Steiner, she says. "This is a new country, a new life--just forget it, everything."
The story of the Holocaust was not yet deemed suitable for prime-time television--it wasn't until 1978 that the mini-series Holocaust would air, provoking its inclusion in public discourse. It wasn't part of the curriculum in public schools, and even in my Hebrew school it didn't surface. We kids knew, of course, that our parents had lived through the Holocaust, that we had no living grandmothers or grandfathers. But few parents sat down to recount their stories. How could they make sense of such a thing or find words that adequately expressed it? And how could they bear to relive the experience?
As I look back on it, what seemed a typical childhood at the time was anything but. As a kid, I presumed that everyone's nether stayed up all night, sitting on the floor of the darkened living room, peering out the window, keeping watch. Didn't all moms sleep with a meat cleaver hidden under the pillow? Didn't all dads wake up repeatedly through the night and down another shot of whisky to fall back asleep? Weren't all families forbidden to use the shower in the bathroom?
In retrospect, of course, the cause of these bizarre behaviors is obvious, but at the time, who knew? Certainly not me.
The traumas that roiled our tiny, one bath ranch house rumbled in other survivors' homes, too. "If I didn't have a nightmare, my wife did," says Bill Pineless, a survivor who still lives in Skokie. "She, for no reason, would get out from bed and run into another room and shout." Another survivor, Sam Newman, recalls that during one nightmare, he fought so hard to fend off the dogs he believed were attacking him that he kicked the bedroom wall and broke a toe.
Skokie, it turns out, was less idyllic than I had thought.
WHATEVER OUTWARD TRANQUILITY THE survivors found in Skokie was abruptly shattered when neo-Nazi Frank Collin banged on Skokie's front door.
In 1968, Collin had founded in Chicago what would become the National Socialist Party of America. A half-Jewish son of a Dachau survivor, Collin was a mustachioed man standing five-feet-eight inches high and weighing about 165 pounds. As a result, the 24-year-old, who wore jackboots and adorned his brown shirts and belt buckles with swastikas and other Nazi regalia, vaguely resembled a chubby parody of Adolf Hitler. Collin claimed to have experienced a "conversion" at the age of seven when he watched a newsreel of the Fuhrer mesmerizing a crowd and then saw a swastika at his school the following day.
Collin opened his party's headquarters in 1970 in a South Side storefront he dubbed Rockwell Hall after American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell, who had been assassinated in Arlington, Virginia, in 1967. Together, Collin and his small pack of followers marched in Chicago's Marquette Park, demonstrating to draw attention to their belief that whites were superior to blacks and Jews, and provoking counter demonstrations. When the Chicago Park District began to require the Nazis to post six-figure sums in public liability insurance, Collin upped the ante. With the help of the Illinois ACLU, he challenged the insurance requirements in court and, in 1976, began distributing flyers in Chicago suburbs where Jews lived, most notably in Skokie.
"WE ARE COMING!" said the leaflets, which carried swastikas and caricatures of Eastern European Jews being assaulted. "I hope they're terrified," Collin told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I hope they're shocked. Because we're coming to get them again. I don't care if someone's mother or father or brother died in the gas chambers. The unfortunate thing is not that there were six million Jews who died. The unfortunate thing is that there were so many Jewish survivors."
To the survivors of Skokie, the Nazis were back.
"The idea that I'm safe here, that nobody was going to try to kill me was totally shattered," says Aaron Elster, a survivor who then lived in Skokie. "Suddenly there was a threat of physical extinction." The survivors were beside themselves with horror, grief, anger and fear. "My husband said, 'What are you afraid of? You are in America,'" recalls Magda Brown, a survivor who lives in Skokie. "But I couldn't shake that fear."
Nor could my parents. My father could barely contain himself. He phoned relatives to deliver in a nearly hysterical tone the terrible news of the Nazis' return. He paced our small living-dining room, his complexion ashen with anger and disbelief.
At age 21,1 did not grasp the significance of this disaster. Though I could see that my parents, uncles and aunts were distraught, 1 was dumbfounded that they would take Collin and his little band of pathetic, would-be Nazis seriously. Clearly Collin was a media creation, I thought, capable of harming no one but himself. I tried to convey this belief to my father, but it was futile: To survivors like him, there was no distinction between Collin's minions and Hitler's. Hadn't Hitler, after all, been regarded as something of a joke until he ascended to the chancellorship of Germany in 1933?
The threats galvanized the survivors, who overcame their reluctance to reveal their pasts. They protested publicly, granted interviews to TV stations and newspapers and otherwise railed loudly against Collin and the neo-Nazis. Survivor Sol Goldstein emerged as one of the leading voices battling Collin, winning over Skokie village counsel Harvey Schwartz, an American-bom Jew, in the process. Though Schwartz at first believed the Nazis had a First Amendment right to march, after witnessing the survivors' agony over Collin's threatened arrival he came to believe that the march must be stopped.
Some rabbis and others suggested that Jews stay in their homes and pull down their shades, but the survivors would not be silenced. In the process, they came to learn--which surprised them--that their non-Jewish neighbors, including Skokie's churches, backed them in their battle against the Nazis.
When Collin announced that he and his followers would march in Skokie on April 30, 1977, the survivors massed at Village Hall, some bearing weapons. But Collin was blocked from appearing by a court injunction. The legal jousting between Collin and the Village of Skokie kept the story on television screens and newspaper front pages through 1977 and 1978, prolonging the torment for the survivors.
The irony of Collin as the rabid anti-Semite whose father had survived the Holocaust, a fact reported at the time, was nearly matched by another paradox: Collin was represented by David Goldberger, the Jewish legal director of the Illinois ACLU, with the full backing of another Jew, ACLU's executive director Aryeh Neier, who as a child fled Nazi Germany. In spite of being denounced by some, including many in the Jewish community, as neo-Nazi dupes or even sympathizers, the two men never deviated from the ACLU's position that defending freedom of speech, no matter how hateful or threatening, was necessary for the protection of democracy.
In 1978, Collin won his First Amendment right to march in Skokie, but he never dared to. He realized, perhaps, that the survivors were prepared to meet him with pipes and baseball bats, and that the Skokie police might look the other way. Collin would soon run afoul of the law again for a wholly different reason. In 1980, he was convicted on eight counts of taking indecent liberties with minors. Collin eventually abandoned Nazism to pursue other fantasies and has since avoided the public eye.
For all the agonies that this strange, angry man inflicted on the survivors, his actions, in fact, transformed them. By organizing to defeat him, they stepped fully into public view for the first time. They spent the next several decades championing human rights and tolerance in Skokie. In 1982 they opened a small storefront Holocaust museum a few blocks from my parents' home in a former dental office, next door to a tavern. A few years later, in 1987, they erected a Holocaust memorial--a Jewish freedom fighter guarding a family that includes a grandfather, a mother and child--on a sliver of land between Skokie' Village Hall and the Skokie Public Library. And through lobbying, they succeeded in making Illinois, in 1990, the first state in the nation to require Holocaust education.
TO BE HONEST, NONE OF THIS MUCH concerned me while it was unfolding, or for many years after. The Collin circus came and went, and I moved on with my life, married and covered the arts as a critic for the Chicago Tribune.
But on a cold February night in 2001, 1 suddenly came face to face with the story of Skokie. That's when my mother, 69 and living alone after my father's death in 1991, fled her home, convinced that someone was trying to put a bullet in her head. She also insisted that a yellow Star of David had been sewn onto her clothing and that she had seen yellow stars on her front lawn. It was a full year before Dr. David Rosenberg, a brilliant psychiatrist who had treated Holocaust survivors for decades, evaluated my mother and came up with the diagnosis. She wasn't suffering from Alzheimer's or any other form of dementia, but late-onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The diagnosis forced me to confront her past. She refused to speak about it, and she does to this day, so I began my own investigation so that I might understand exactly what she was running from. I traveled across the United States visiting relatives I never knew I had, and then to Dubno, the small town in easternmost Poland where she was born (after the war it became part of Ukraine). I learned that my mother was one of only about 100 Jews out of 12,000 believed to have survived the Nazis' mass executions by gunfire from 1941 to 1942. Her mother had shoved her 11 -year-old daughter out a window so that she wouldn't be rounded up and shot with the rest of the family. She ran into the fields and survived Poland's frigid winters and horrific nihilism to Jews by a combination of wit, luck and grace.
It became clear that together my parents had summoned the strength to put aside their haunted pasts to celebrate my bar mitzvah and to watch my sister and me become adults. Skokie had played a part, too, giving them a tentative peace, or something as close to it as they ever would get.
SKOKIE HAS CHANGED DRAMATICALLY since my childhood. An estimated 25 percent of the village is still Jewish, much of it Orthodox, but the once plentiful Jewish cultural centers--the delis, bakeries and synagogues--are fewer in number. Only several hundred survivors remain, according to estimates; most have passed away or moved to warmer climates. Those who remain are hardly noticed: They're hidden away in condos, nursing homes and assisted living centers. Their children--like my sister and me--have mostly moved away.
In their spiritual wake is the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which last year moved from its cramped storefront to a 65,000-square-foot edifice, and now serves as a reminder of Skokie's unlikely place in Jewish history. On the streets where the survivors once pushed strollers and visited with one another are immigrants and refugees from South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and beyond, representing 70 ethnic groups speaking more than 90 languages. What was an all-white suburb in 1960 has become one of the most ethnically, religiously and racially diverse places in America. Few events in Skokie are more popular than its annual Festival of Cultures, where thousands convene downtown to dance to ethnic music and sample the food of the nationalities that thrive here. These new immigrants have the survivors to thank: It is they who ensured that Skokie would be a safe haven. It is they who rallied to fend off the Nazis, forged bonds with their neighbors, told the story of the Holocaust and brought about a legacy of tolerance.
As for my family, my parents' brick bungalow was torn down years ago, replaced by a house more than twice its size. A4y mother now lives in a nursing home not far from Skokie, where my sister and I put her on advice of doctors. She remains convinced that people--even the medical professionals--are plotting to kill her. Twice she slipped through an unlocked door and was found wandering pristine streets and perfect sidewalks. Still, I'm grateful for the all the good years we had in Skokie.
MOMENT MAGAZINE AT THIRTY-FIVE
Yes, Moment's always stayed on course. (Some magazines get gauche, or gaucher.) And Moment's articles alone Have all been certified as kosher.