A Message From Susan L. Abrams, Museum CEO
The recent and severe spike in antisemitism is a warning to people everywhere. Where prejudice and hatred reign unchecked, violence soon follows. Sadly, we see that now more than ever in contemporary times here in the United States, in Europe, and throughout the world. Homes and cars vandalized with swastikas in southern Florida, eight synagogues attacked in one week last month in France, in Italy graffiti on walls and shop windows declare, “Jews – your end is near,” and in Germany chants of “Gas the Jews” are heard on the streets.
I read with dismay about many of these incidents while on a “Learning Journey” in Poland led by Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. With 30 of our docents and visitor services volunteers, we travelled from Warsaw to Krakow and to many smaller towns in-between learning about both the beautiful culture and rhythm of Jewish life through the centuries and the wrenching devastation during the Holocaust. We also saw examples of righteous people speaking up to tell these stories and address the history. We felt viscerally heat radiating from a metal roof in the attic where Aaron Elster, Museum vice president, was hidden for almost two years as a boy of ten, and we cried with Fritzie Fritzshall, Museum president, as she took us through Auschwitz, where she was enslaved for over a year and where 1.5 million people were murdered. In the almost 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, antisemitism has simmered and bubbled. Now, however, there is a brazenness and pervasiveness that should gravely concern all of us.
Throughout our trip, we experienced the overwhelming legacy of absence. Where once there were 3.3 million Jews in Poland, just 300,000 survived the war, and today, due to emigration following communism and additional antisemitism, that number is estimated at 20,000. In town after town, where once there had been 10,000 Jews in a city of 13,000 or 6,000 in a village of 10,000, now there are none. At Illinois Holocaust Museum, we have a contemporary art exhibition entitled, Legacy of Absence, which poignantly explores voids created by other atrocities and genocides, including Armenia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. In Poland, every fiber of our beings resonated with both the legacy of absence and the profound absence of legacy.
What are the lessons for today? They are those taught in the Museum’s Karkomi Permanent Exhibition: that if we are silent or indifferent to prejudice, discrimination, and hatred, we allow an environment in which violence flourishes. They are also the lessons taught in our Make a Difference! The Harvey L. Miller Family Youth Exhibition (for 3rd graders and beyond): to be an “upstander” as opposed to a bystander and to speak out on the issues that are important to you.
Thank you to you, our supporters, for enabling Illinois Holocaust Museum to present these critically important lessons to approximately 100,000 students and adults annually through our exhibits and programs. Thank you for partnering with us to remember the past in order to transform the future. It is needed today as much as ever.