SKOKIE, ILL. - Barbara Steiner survived life as a child in the Warsaw ghetto and three Nazi death camps, emerging against dreadful odds without family or belongings but with a powerful story to tell. Yet for decades she was quiet about her trauma, concentrating on a new life in this placid suburb northwest of Chicago.
Thirty-two years ago this summer, however, that peace was shattered when a group of American neo-Nazis threatened to march through the village, a destination carefully picked for its psychological punch: Skokie was home to many thousands of Holocaust survivors or their relatives.
The threatened march put Skokie at the bull's-eye of a national debate about free speech and democratic ideals. And although the march never materialized, it prompted a movement among the death camp survivors here to speak up and teach the lessons of their lives.
All those decades of effort came to fruition this weekend in the form of the $45 million Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. The museum was shaped by what may be the last generation of Holocaust survivors to have such influence over their own stories.
"It's a dream come true and more," Steiner said, preparing for today's public opening.
The museum asks universal questions about human rights, as many Holocaust memorials do. But the Skokie museum is brought to life with the personal pictures, documents, clothing, testimonies and other artifacts of the building's own neighbors.
"The rightful place for this is here, because of the march," said Samuel Harris, the president of the museum, whose parents and siblings were killed at the Treblinka death camp. "You must know what fear the swastika brings to a survivor. The fear is immense, more than you can write. I felt, what can I do? Very simple solution: education."
NEW YORK TIMES