The Life and Times of Skokie
To be honest, none of this much concerned me while it was unfolding, or for many years after. The Collin circus came and went, and I moved on with my life, married and covered the arts as a critic for the Chicago Tribune.
But on a cold February night in 2001, I suddenly came face to face with the story of Skokie. That’s when my mother, 69 and living alone after my father’s death in 1991, fled her home, convinced that someone was trying to put a bullet in her head. She also insisted that a yellow Star of David had been sewn onto her clothing and that she had seen yellow stars on her front lawn. It was a full year before Dr. David Rosenberg, a brilliant psychiatrist who had treated Holocaust survivors for decades, evaluated my mother and came up with the diagnosis. She wasn’t suffering from Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia, but late-onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The diagnosis forced me to confront her past. She refused to speak about it, and she does to this day, so I began my own investigation so that I might understand exactly what she was running from. I traveled across the United States visiting relatives I never knew I had, and then to Dubno, the small town in easternmost Poland where she was born (after the war it became part of Ukraine). I learned that my mother was one of only about 100 Jews out of 12,000 believed to have survived the Nazis’ mass executions by gunfire from 1941 to 1942. Her mother had shoved her 11-year-old daughter out a window so that she wouldn’t be rounded up and shot with the rest of the family. She ran into the fields and survived Poland’s frigid winters and horrific nihilism to Jews by a combination of wit, luck and grace.
It became clear that together my parents had summoned the strength to put aside their haunted pasts to celebrate my bar mitzvah and to watch my sister and me become adults. Skokie had played a part, too, giving them a tentative peace, or something as close to it as they ever would get.
Skokie has changed dramatically since my childhood. An estimated 25 percent of the village is still Jewish, much of it Orthodox, but the once plentiful Jewish cultural centers—the delis, bakeries and synagogues—are fewer in number. Only several hundred survivors remain, according to estimates; most have passed away or moved to warmer climates. Those who remain are hardly noticed: They’re hidden away in condos, nursing homes and assisted living centers. Their children—like my sister and me—have mostly moved away.
In their spiritual wake is the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which last year moved from its cramped storefront to a 65,000-square-foot edifice, and now serves as a reminder of Skokie’s unlikely place in Jewish history. On the streets where the survivors once pushed strollers and visited with one another are immigrants and refugees from South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and beyond, representing 70 ethnic groups speaking more than 90 languages. What was an all-white suburb in 1960 has become one of the most ethnically, religiously and racially diverse places in America. Few events in Skokie are more popular than its annual Festival of Cultures, where thousands convene downtown to dance to ethnic music and sample the food of the nationalities that thrive here. These new immigrants have the survivors to thank: It is they who ensured that Skokie would be a safe haven. It is they who rallied to fend off the Nazis, forged bonds with their neighbors, told the story of the Holocaust and brought about a legacy of tolerance.
As for my family, my parents’ brick bungalow was torn down years ago, replaced by a house more than twice its size. My mother now lives in a nursing home not far from Skokie, where my sister and I put her on advice of doctors. She remains convinced that people—even the medical professionals—are plotting to kill her. Twice she slipped through an unlocked door and was found wandering pristine streets and perfect sidewalks. Still, I’m grateful for the all the good years we had in Skokie.
Howard Reich has been a Chicago Tribune arts critic since 1983 and is the author of The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich. His documentary film about his mother’s late-onset PTSD, Prisoner of Her Past, is playing at festivals around the world and will be broadcast in the U.S. next April.