by Howard Reich
Having moved from Rogers Park—a grimy neighborhood on the far North Side of Chicago—Skokie seemed almost too good to be true. I no longer would have to play in the dirt courtyard of our crowded apartment building or among the trash heaps in the alleyways.
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 shtetl, 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.”