Sunday, November 26, 2017

An Inspiring Addition: Futuristic Technology Preserves Ever Present Past in Illinois Holocaust Museum's 'Take A Stand Center' -- Museum Exhibit Review

Exhibition Review

Take A Stand Center
Illinois Holocaust Museum
and Education Center, Skokie, IL
Permanent Addition

"Your generation should continue to learn and make sure it doesn't happen again in the future.

"Otherwise there will be no future."

Holocaust survivor Sam Harris recently voiced these powerful sentiments at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, in response to a question about the lessons that can be learned from his harrowing experiences.

Audience members understandably had many more queries--"How did you survive?," "What happened to your parents?," "Do you have nightmares?--and from his chair onstage the eloquent 82-year-old Harris answered them all...adroitly, candidly and poignantly.

Only thing is, Mr. Harris--the President Emeritus of the museum, whose creation he was instrumental in facilitating--wasn't actually present.

Nor, as some may have surmised, was he appearing via Skype, FaceTime or any other form of live video streaming. 

Rather, within the Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience that is the centerpiece of the museum's new Take A Stand Center, we were seeing, hearing and interacting with Sam Harris in holographic form.

And thanks to leading-edge 3D interactive technology that the Illinois Holocaust Museum is the first in the world to employ, answers that Harris recorded in a Southern California studio--along with 12 other Holocaust survivors--were triggered by questions posed by audience members.

Having sat through two sessions in which Mr. Harris first tells his story via video vignette--after the Nazis overtook his native Poland and sent his parents to perish in the Treblinka concentration camp, he was put into the Deblin camp by his older sister Rosa (as a protective measure) and later transferred to another, Czestochowa--and then asks for questions as he holographically appears onstage, I noted that there will understandably be some inquiries he, and the other participating survivors, just aren't programmed to answer or address.

Museum docents serve as moderators, rephrasing audience member questions--many presumably from inquisitive school kids--to best trigger the appropriate response, with answers from the loquacious Harris often extending far beyond what was specifically posed.

But this actually makes it feel more realistic, and the experience--featuring technology developed by  the USC Shoah Foundation's New Dimensions in Technology program--really is quite impressive and informative.

For now through the end of 2017, the holographic theater is featuring seven Chicago-area survivors long connected to the museum, which the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois originated in 1981 in a Skokie storefront before the striking Stanley Tigerman-designed building opened at 9603 Woods Drive near Golf Road, in 2009.

Check the Take a Stand Center website for the current and ongoing schedule, which in addition to Sam Harris, includes sessions with Fritzie Fritschall, Aaron Elster, Adina Sella, Izzy Starck, Janine Oberrotman and Matus Stolov.

In speaking with the museum's Communications Manager, Amanda Berrios, my understanding is that in the new year, the holographic Q&A sessions will also feature the six non-Chicagoland survivors who participated in the recording sessions, while repeating the local seven.

Perhaps exacerbated by the reality that I expressly visited the Take A Stand Center--which also has several powerful components complementing the Cooper Survivor Stories holographic theater--and did not walk through the museum's longstanding core, the Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition, yet again, my sense was that it could be fulfilling to see more than one survivor's story in a given visit.

I don't know if on-demand sessions, or multiple survivor stories being scheduled in a given day is in the offing--at present, each session starts on the hour, but even with numerous posed questions only seemed to last about 30 minutes--but as it happened I was able to speak briefly, in person, with Adina Sella, who had come to give family members the chance to view her hologram.

As I had been touring the Goodman Upstander Gallery and missed the start of Dr. Sella's special session, I wasn't able to see any of it, but greatly valued being able to talk to her for a few minutes as we waited for my second session with the virtual Mr. Harris to begin.

"Children do get damaged; childhood has a purpose," shared Adina, in noting that while she felt quite fortunate that she, her parents and brother all survived the Holocaust by hiding from German troops for several years, she recognizes the repercussions of constantly keeping oneself hidden, having to steal food, distrusting nearly everyone, fearing footsteps, etc.

"You can be a chameleon, but never an authentic self, who--like most kids--learns to assess and deal with fear and threats," Dr. Sella, who has long been a psychologist, continued as I sat engrossed.

So even beyond children who died in camps or on trains or lost members of their immediate family, I was getting a grim first-hand account of how devastating the Holocaust also was for kids--like her--who were deprived the "experience of normalcy" vital to one's development.

As she spoke, I couldn't help but think of the Illinois Holocaust Museum's excellent and ongoing--to January 7, 2018--temporary exhibit on the late rock 'n roll promoter Bill Graham, which I had toured and reviewed in August.

Somewhat akin to Adina Stella, Graham--born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin--was a fugitive from Nazi hunters for much of his childhood, before eventually coming to America as a refugee. Sadly, Graham's mom and one of his four sisters would perish in the Holocaust.

[This coming Wednesday, November 29, the Holocaust Museum will be hosting an evening concert in which a local band, Mr. Blotto, will perform songs by acts Bill Graham had showcased at New Year Eve shows at New York's Fillmore East in the '60s and '70s. Tickets for this event allow for touring the Bill Graham & the Rock 'n Roll Revolution exhibit, but presumably not the Take A Stand Center or other parts of the museum.]

The harrowing childhood accounts of Adina Stella and Bill Graham also reminded me of a "survivor talk" by the now-passed Walter Reed I had attended at the museum a few years ago and wrote about here. (Survivors involved with the museum have long been on hand to speak with school groups, and each month there is a public "Survivor Talk," which are listed here.)

Although being able to speak with Holocaust survivors, with great realism in the Cooper Survivor Stories theater is the most newsworthy aspect of the Take A Stand Center, I found the Upstander Gallery and Take A Stand Lab nearly as compelling. 

One of the challenges I think any museum devoted to the Holocaust faces--and I've been to many, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Memorial Center near Detroit--is how to document the nearly unfathomable decimation of 6 million European Jews at the hands of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany 70+ years ago in a way that makes this horrific history both resonant and actionable in the modern day.

The vast numbers of Holocaust survivors who eventually relocated to my hometown of Skokie and, with assuredly many others, spurred the development of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center are to be forever admired and lauded for--despite the deep pain it resurfaces, per Sam Harris--making "Never Forget" quite tangible.

But the "Never Again" corollary is a rather formidable challenge, not just on a micro level with many of the survivors passing on--undoubtedly one of the reasons behind the holographic testimonies--but on a macro one, as hardly a day goes by without hearing of the massacre of civilians, hate crimes and even ethnic cleansings somewhere in the world.

So in noting that the Skokie museum has added a tagline of "Take history to heart. Take a stand for humanity." it was especially pleasing to see not only how the other aspects of the Take A Stand Center well complement the Survivor Stories but also add contemporary inspiration and urgency to the baleful lessons of the IHMEC's permanent exhibition. (The museum has raised its standard admission fee to $15, but it includes all parts of the Take A Stand Center--though guests must set an entry time for the holographic theater--and special exhibits such as the one on Bill Graham.

Though spatial considerations may dictate taking things in a different order on crowded days, the Cooper Survivor Stories holographic theater is the first stop in the Take A Stand Center.

The theater's exit doors lead to a couple of wall displays about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Adopted by the United Nations in 1948 as a response to the Holocaust, this document--expounding a set of Human Rights--serves as a framework for a fine set of on-demand video vignettes at stations next to the Upstander Gallery.

Selectable videos--and nearby wall text--address the topics of Education, Safe Communities, Equal Rights, Economic Opportunity and Health & Education. Each video is under two minutes, but quite compelling in outlining a fundamental right that has failed to reach many in the world, and then chronicling "Upstanders" and their efforts to change things.

Some of the factoids that struck me include:

● Nearly half the world's population do not feel safe from torture 

 ● An estimated 150 million children worldwide are forced into child labor

● Around 700 million people around the world live on less than $1.90 a day

● More than half the world's population has no access to healthcare

● The unemployment rate for African-Americans is about twice that of white Americans at every level of achievement

Further showcased in the subsequent gallery, Upstanders include famous names such as Nelson Mandela, Jane Addams and Malala Yousafzai, but also many impressive individuals of various ages and backgrounds whom I admittedly didn't know, such as Craig Kielburger, Henry Cervantes, Jack Andraka, Ma Jun and Dr. Raj Panjabi.

This is somewhat the point, as both through biographical trilons that can be spun to learn more about each upstander--while seeing oneself in mirrored imagery--and interactive displays that go a bit more in depth about each subject, one can readily learn how soccer star Carli Lloyd is championing equal pay for female players or how Theaster Gates is helping to rebuild Chicago's south side.

While the information to be found in the Take A Stand Center should be educational and inspiring to those of any age, the Illinois Holocaust Museum attracts many school groups, and the user friendly nature of the exhibits should make it particularly accessible, digestible and even actionable for kids.

Toward that end, the Take A Stand Lab has interactive screens in which users can input aspects of their personality and get suggestions for tangible ways to make an impact, complete with helpful resources that can be immediately emailed.

On a nearby wall, museum visitors are invited to Make-A-Pledge committing their efforts to a given cause or vowing to be an upstander, and a nearby display contains panels highlighting "Success Stories" among upstanding individuals and organizations.

These range from the Ice Bucket Challenge benefiting the ALS Association to Civil Rights Activist & Congressman John Lewis to the annual charity drive of Highland Park High School.

The final physical component of the Take A Stand Center is The Act of Art gallery showcasing artworks reflecting the museum's mission.

Here there is some striking artwork that previously was on the museum's upper level and likely often missed by weary visitors.

It's nice to see the fine collection being given more prominence, but it still may wind up being passed by rather quickly.

And while the Take A Stand Center in whole makes a terrific addition to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, I think one of the challenges it creates is how patrons should fit it into a holistic museum visit.

For museum members and locals like me who can get to the IHMEC multiple times per year, the Take A Stand Center is well-worth its own visit. The nearly 3 hours I spent is far more than most visitors will need, as I was gathering notes, taking copious photos, engaging in conversations, listening to Mr. Harris twice, etc.

Naomi Tereza Salmon, Asservate
Until the Bill Graham exhibit closes on January 7, it would seem some visitors might well opt to pair that Special Exhibition with the many facets of the Take A Stand Center.

The somewhat tricky part, as I see it, is that first-time visitors to the museum should first spend 1-2 hours in the Karkomi Holocaust Exhibiton, as it not only provides a thorough overview of the Holocaust, it gives context to all of the other exhibits, including the Take A Stand Center.

But if properly ingested, the main exhibition should be emotionally grueling, as the Holocaust is likely the worst thing that's ever happened.

So thinking of one's psyche, as well as just general museum fatigue, I would suggest out-of-town tourists and other first-timers budget at least 4 hours for their visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. This would include about an hour-long break--perhaps spent getting a bite at Old Orchard or strolling the nearby Harms Woods--allowing for a breather between the Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition, the Survivor Story hologram, the rest of the Take A Stand Center, and then perhaps special exhibits. (The admission fee allows for leaving and re-entering the museum within the same day.)

On my recent visit, primarily devoted to the Take A Stand Center, I also dashed through the excellent Bill Graham exhibit once again and then discovered some fine exhibits on the upper level, which also houses two reflection halls certainly worth some time.

I was particularly moved by BESA: A Code of Honor, which gathers photographs--by Norman Gershman--and stories of "Muslim Albanians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust."

Along with a sizable and lively youth exhibition space designed to illuminate and inspire younger kids, there is also a hallway reproducing pages from a booklet called How It Is But How It Should Be, which a Holocaust prison camp internee named Trudl Besag had written and illustrated for a barracks mate.

So there is a whole lot to be seen and contemplated at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, to which the Take A Stand Center makes an excellent addition.

And there's no reason repeat visitors can't properly see everything in due time; the museum is meant as an everlasting resource to battle evil and inspire heroism. Understanding the events and lessons of the Holocaust shouldn't just entail a 2-hour one-time museum visit, and the Take A Stand Center can be pivotal in connecting the bitter past to a better future.

In fact, where the village of Skokie was once well-known for its vast community of Holocaust survivors, it's now noted for its tremendous diversity, celebrated each year through the town's Festival of Cultures and the Coming Together in Skokie programs.

I don't see it as mere coincidence that a group of people who had borne first-hand witness to the very worst of mankind and pledged to fight hatred has led to a suburb that distributes lawn signs proclaiming:

"Skokie Welcomes Everyone."

Such tolerance, respect and neighborly kinship for those of differing races, religions, cultures and colors would seem to be what the Take A Stand Center is all about.

And intended to--eternally and entirely--inspire.

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