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Skokie, IL - New Holocaust Museum Opens in Chicago Suburb

Published on: April 19, 2009 11:11 AM
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Skokie, IL - Steel and stone cannot speak, so it is only fair to ask how architecture can evoke the cries of 6 million Jews who were murdered in gas chambers, forced on death marches or shot at point-blank range and dumped into mass graves. In all honesty, it can’t. The evil of the Holocaust was so vast that architecture, which is charged with subdividing the infinity of space, cannot fully come to grips with it.

And yet, architecture can stir horror and sadness, provoke thought and introspection, and make the absence of victims palpable. In the last two decades, it has demonstrated that in such celebrated works as James Ingo Freed’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

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Rejecting the bland neutrality of postwar modernism, these designs revealed that architecture can unite the visual and the visceral to memorialize the unthinkable.

The new Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center  which opens Sunday in Skokie and was designed by Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman, is a very different sort of structure. It relies far more heavily on overt symbolism than its predecessors—with mixed results. Some of the interior spaces in this $45 million building are deeply moving. But the exterior is overloaded with metaphors that distract from the museum’s central focus of honoring the dead and enlightening the living.

Any judgments about this structure must be qualified because its interior remains, in crucial respects, incomplete. Less than three-quarters of the permanent exhibit is expected to be finished by Sunday’s opening, which coincides with Holocaust Remembrance Week. Nevertheless, the building is finished and it is already turning drivers’ heads along the Edens Expressway.

The museum’s presence in Skokie is rich in irony. In the late 1970s, neo-Nazis targeted the suburb for a march because it was home to thousands of Holocaust survivors. The march was never held, but the prospect of it mobilized survivors and led to the establishment in 1981 of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. The foundation, which opened a small storefront museum in Skokie in 1984, has now built a structure whose very existence represents a triumph against the continuing scourges of hatred, bigotry and genocide.

As designed by the 78-year-old Tigerman, it consists of a black pavilion and a white pavilion, which represent good and evil with almost melodramatic simplicity. The black pavilion’s lacquered steel, hard-edged industrial details and lack of windows make it appear stark and menacing. The bulbous white pavilion’s transparency suggests the redemptive power of education.

Tracks The space between the buildings is a fan-shaped void, faced in gray on the exterior, that Tigerman calls “the cleave.” It contains a German boxcar of the type that transported people to the death campus. Railroad tracks (left) run through the cleave, underscoring the idea that the Holocaust was a relentless journey forward with no turning back.

Visitors will enter the dark pavilion and descend through a windowless, mazelike series of exhibits depicting Jewish life before the Holocaust and after the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. At the low point of their descent is a hinge between the two buildings—a dark, cylinder-shaped room portraying the deportation of the Jews to the concentration camps. Visitors will then move into the light-filled space of the white pavilion, which contains more exhibits, a film theater and other commemorative spaces. It all sounds very neat and affirming—from dark to light—yet the reality is more complex.

The problems begin with the museum’s location. Originally, it was supposed to rise in a neighborhood east of the Edens Expressway. But in 2002, the Skokie Village Board denied permission after neighbors complained that they would be inundated with traffic.

Back-side So the museum shifted to a plot west of the Edens, but Tigerman did not rotate the building plans to make the pavilions face adjoining Woods Drive. He liked the idea of exposing the building to thousands of drivers. Yet as drivers whiz by, they only see the building’s top. And once people arrive, the faults compound. Visitors approaching on foot from a parking lot along Woods Drive encounter the museum’s concrete-faced back (left). A sign had to be installed to direct them to the front. Once they get there, they find the pavilion facades nearly crammed against a highway embankment. The roar of cars and trucks is ever-present.

Front The building itself is squat and cartoonish. Visitors will need an answer key to decipher its esoteric assortment of historic allusions and skewed grids. The key would inform them that the white pavilion faces east, symbolizing the Jews’ anticipation of the Messiah, while the black pavilion faces southeast, toward the Western Wall of the destroyed Second Temple. Two free-standing columns evoke the bronze pillars in front of King Solomon’s Temple but are built in a metal framework to suggest the lack of architectural permanence associated with a wandering people. And so on.

Ask Tigerman what all this has to do with the Holocaust and he’ll reply that Hitler not only wanted to destroy the Jews of Europe; he wanted to wipe out their culture. And so, to a fault, Tigerman has defiantly expressed that culture. His collage of forms nearly collapses under its overly literal weight.

Boxcar Fortunately, the museum’s interior leaves behind this studied symbolism for an architecture that is refreshingly direct. As noisy school groups enter the black pavilion, for example, the stark, industrial-strength spaces can be counted upon to hush them. Stepping inside the boxcar (left) will give visitors a stomach-churning impression of how Jews were herded to the camps like human cattle.

But the interior is not without problems. When visitors arrive at exhibits about the concentration camps, for example, they will be in the white pavilion, where natural light streams down from above. That forced the museum’s exhibition designer to put up black acrylic panels to darken the mood. And the fan-shaped cleave in the building’s center does not equal Libeskind’s cavernous concrete voids in making the absence of the dead palpable.

Skylights All should be forgiven, however, once visitors climb a spiraling staircase that leads to the museum’s memorial space, known as the Room of Remembrance. Here, Tigerman has shaped a skylit cylindrical space that is wrapped in light wood and has a semicircular bench that encourages visitors to face each other and talk. Columns of Jerusalem stone flank a book maintained by local Holocaust survivors about family members who were killed. The apex of the cleave pushes into the room, violating its Platonic geometry. Above, written in Yiddish, English and Hebrew are the first names of victims. The names get progressively larger and lighter as they rise, subtly suggesting ashes of human flesh rising through a chimney. It’s by far the building’s most powerful space.

Hall-reflection Visitors will then go to the almost-circular Hall of Reflection, which is bathed in natural light that seems all the brighter after the darkness of the black pavilion. Its 12 seats, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, are arranged in a square, allowing visitors to commune or be alone. The space is simple, but not stark, offering visitors a much-needed chance to decompress.

What they will take away from this haunting but ultimately uplifting structure is anybody’s guess. Clearly, the museum’s architecture will have engaged and enveloped them in a drama of dark and light, life and death, survival and transcendence. That is no small achievement even if this design does not rise to the level of other buildings that have confronted the challenge of giving voice to steel and stone.


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Read Comments (18)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Apr 19, 2009 at 10:50 AM Anonymous Says:

"Steel and stone cannot speak, so it is only fair to ask how architecture can evoke the cries of 6 million"

By being open on Shabbos and serving pork in its cafe...This place is a spit in the face of all the Jews that gave up their lives for Being Jewish...This is no place for Jew to go or be proud of whatsoever.

2

 Apr 19, 2009 at 11:41 AM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #1  
Anonymous Says:

"Steel and stone cannot speak, so it is only fair to ask how architecture can evoke the cries of 6 million"

By being open on Shabbos and serving pork in its cafe...This place is a spit in the face of all the Jews that gave up their lives for Being Jewish...This is no place for Jew to go or be proud of whatsoever.

Thank goodness there are those willing to move heaven and earth to preserve the memory of what happened to our people, and in such a public way so that generations to come will be able to learn the truth and the horror of it all.. G-d knows there are many who just want to 'put it behind us' or pretend that it never happened. As the daughter of a Buchenwald survivor, I say, sir, that you are an idiot.

3

 Apr 19, 2009 at 12:34 PM Understanding Jew Says:

Reply to #2
By calling a Jew who wishes to have a holocaust memorial closed on Shabbos, and not serve pork "an idiot" - what are you? a disappearing Jew! your grandchildren will not visit this place anyway - they can get their pork in a nearby restaurant 7 days a week.

4

 Apr 19, 2009 at 11:59 AM a jew Says:

Reply to #2  
Anonymous Says:

Thank goodness there are those willing to move heaven and earth to preserve the memory of what happened to our people, and in such a public way so that generations to come will be able to learn the truth and the horror of it all.. G-d knows there are many who just want to 'put it behind us' or pretend that it never happened. As the daughter of a Buchenwald survivor, I say, sir, that you are an idiot.

it is a museum of tolerance, not of the holocaust. you, madam, are a moron.

5

 Apr 19, 2009 at 01:06 PM Daniel Says:

And who is the keynote speaker at this museum's Public Grand Opening?

None other than President Bill Clinton, who invited Arafat, murderer of our people, nto the White House for the first time. Batting second is, of course, Elie Wiesel, the world's best-known professional Jew.

This museum and those like it are the desperate creations of anti-Torah forces whose Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist temples are not in their control enough. Now they create temples of death where they worship their tools of control such as victimhood and blame.

Run away, youth, run away!

6

 Apr 19, 2009 at 01:29 PM Anonymous Says:

# 2: Stick to your guns. I agree with you.

7

 Apr 19, 2009 at 01:26 PM FactChecker Says:

According to the museum's website "The museum will offer a fresh, exciting assortment of light foods in its vegetarian museum cafe. The cafe will serve custom roast coffee, breakfast items, salads, sandwiches, soups and pastries. Sealed Kosher foods will also be available."
No. 1 would rather engage in kneejerk criticism than check the facts.

8

 Apr 19, 2009 at 02:11 PM midwesterner Says:

Reply to #7  
FactChecker Says:

According to the museum's website "The museum will offer a fresh, exciting assortment of light foods in its vegetarian museum cafe. The cafe will serve custom roast coffee, breakfast items, salads, sandwiches, soups and pastries. Sealed Kosher foods will also be available."
No. 1 would rather engage in kneejerk criticism than check the facts.

If sealed Kosher food will "also" be available, that means they will serve predominantly non kosher, and that #1 is quite correct.

9

 Apr 19, 2009 at 02:05 PM JewMan Says:

It looks as though this is either the wrong URL or the site is not yet finished.

How many Polacks does it take to make a WWII Web site?

10

 Apr 19, 2009 at 02:55 PM Anonymous Says:

Better yet, how about using these funds to help destitute holocaust survivors. There are 10's of thousands of them, who are forced to make choices between food , heat or rent. The claims commissions sit on billions of dollars and use bureaucratic chicanery to deny them their due assistance. What a shondah that so much money is spent on museums and the remaining victims of the Holocaust are suffering from the neglect and indifference of their People again.

11

 Apr 19, 2009 at 05:08 PM chaim Says:

#2..'jews' like you braght this on us.quite a few holy leaders of that generation warned of what was coming because of the 'haskalah' including the chafetz chaim. i heard mayself, not 2nd hand from yhe previous holy skulener rebbe 'it satarted in germany because that was the root of haskalah'. was in '72

12

 Apr 19, 2009 at 06:50 PM Anonymous Says:

The negative comments this article provoked are distrubing. Would those of you complaining about this museum rather there be more holocaust deniers? Any efforts to preserve the memories of those who died and suffered and teach the world about what happens when discrimination rules and others remain silent should be supported.

For those who think only orthodox were exterminated, and therefore somehow only orthodox compliant holocaust museums are allowed, you don't own the holocaust. Jews of all level of observance and even those who were not observant were slaughtered together with the observant. The Nazi's didn't only take those who kep kosher.

13

 Apr 19, 2009 at 07:45 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #11  
chaim Says:

#2..'jews' like you braght this on us.quite a few holy leaders of that generation warned of what was coming because of the 'haskalah' including the chafetz chaim. i heard mayself, not 2nd hand from yhe previous holy skulener rebbe 'it satarted in germany because that was the root of haskalah'. was in '72

How dare you blame the victims and their survivors.

14

 Apr 19, 2009 at 10:03 PM #13 Says:

#13.. how dare you think the world is hefker and you can go about destroing g-ds law ..'bishruris libe ailech' and everything will be fine and dandy.no there is a judge and jury. look in your machzor on rosh hahanah and yom kupper

15

 Apr 19, 2009 at 11:47 PM Anonymous Says:

I went to this today, and there were a handful of Nazi protestors a few blocks away with signs, dressed in uniform and doing the salute. There were very few of them, but it was sickening. Yes, it is sad they serve non-kosher in the cafe. Yes, there are some other things about the museum and perhaps the dedication that were not perfect, but this is a museum of tolerance. Learn to tolerate. Not everyone is frum, not everyone killed in the Holocaust was frum, and in a perfect world we would have a perfect museum, but it is not a perfect world. Instead of always seeing the negative, how about being happy that this was built to help us always remember the sick atrocities wrought against us and others who were different, just because of that fact. How about appreciating that this will very likely be the last museum built in the US in collaboration with actual Holocaust survivors? How about loving everyone else, and your fellow Jew, even if they don't keep kosher? How about appreciating all of the work that went into this, even if Bill Clinton was a speaker? How about you stop your petty arguments for a minute and think of what six million Jews and many non-Jews had to go through not even a century ago, and then re-evaluate what you have to say here.

16

 Apr 19, 2010 at 09:48 PM Anonymous Says:

I was a young girl of 11 years old when my mother sent me to corner grocery store to charge some butter and bread. As Mrs Wyld wrapped the two items, I noticed numbers on her arm. I asked her what they were, she held out her arm and said remember what you have seen. Mr. Wyld who was tall and extremely thin, held out his arm next to his wife's. I never knew what it meant until years later. I was married and had my own children. To Mr. and Mrs. Wyld, who kept us in food with credit, I remember those concentration camp numbers. I have told my story over and over and will continue to tell that story. I remember their three daughters too. Who use to get teased in school with awful songs about Jews. I am sorry I never understood I was so young, but remember the pain on your face and never knew what it meant. I have looked for this family to no avail. I hope they have found peace and joy and happiness in their lives. I am sure that Mr. and Mrs Wyld are gone now as I am in my 60's now. Keep building the museums and keep telling the stories. I am a catholic and my children know the story as will my grandchildren. We won't let anyone forget. Thank you.

17

 May 04, 2010 at 02:50 PM Anonymous Says:

How sad it is to see Jewish people have these nasty, vulgar, demeaning conversations. There is so much you could do or say not to demean your own people. I am a Catholic and am ashamed of you. People like me appreciate what you write. You represent your people. Have dignity. Have personal pride. You are a disgrace to your own religion no matter what your belief is. I will always care for the jewish people. The suffering has been unbearable. Your conversations are an embarrassment to your own families. Say something good, be positive. Teach and befriend others. If you don't want to eat at the museum, don't. If you want to, enjoy. Remember what this museum is and who died so others could build it. You should be ashamed and maybe you should do some praying over the words that I just read. How sad. I will go to the museum and eat non-kosher foods. You as a Jewish person have your choice. I thank those at the museum who have thought of people like me. You don't own the hurt of the world. We share it. We want to grieve as well without the meanlingless conversations I have read here. Try to have a good day and being kind is not a weakness it is a strength.

18

 Oct 08, 2013 at 01:40 PM Anonymous Says:

I think everyone is right. No one should be idiots. We should learn tolerance. We should keep our boundaries. Many Jews died in the holocaust, many who didn't keep kosher or Shabbos and many who did. Many still don't and many do.
My comments are, just because someone else transgresses the Torah doesn't mean another should. Also, some people who do keep Torah laws prefer not to socialize with people who don't, but even more so, it hurts a Shomer Shabbos Jew to see a Jewish institution blatantly ignoring the Torah. It's not about tolerance. This is a public Jewish institution, which by what it is, needs to stand for and be an example of Torah law.
My question: Jewish people died for being Jewish. We need to show the world what Jewish is - in character and in Torah practice. No ifs or ands. It does NOT matter how the world has changed. It does NOT matter who doesn't keep Shabbos or kosher. A beloved Rebbitzen once said, "We all have enough of our own yetzer hara (evil inclination). We don't have to take on the yetzer hara of others!" I ask every Jew to consider sticking to The Book a little more.

19

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