SKOKIE, Ill. – Thousands of people on Sunday attended the opening of a $45 million Holocaust museum in this Chicago suburb perhaps best known for an aborted march by neo-Nazis decades ago.
The 65,000-square-foot Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is considered the largest of its kind in the Midwest and features 2,000 survivor testimonies, most of them from nearby residents.
“We don’t want the only people learning to be in Washington, New York and Los Angeles,” former President Bill Clinton, the keynote speaker for the opening, told the crowds gathered under tents in the rain.
“I think it is important that this place of remembrance and learning is here, not only because of what happened in Skokie three decades ago but because it is in the heartland of the country.”
Skokie, once home to thousands of Holocaust survivors, garnered international attention in the 1970s when neo-Nazis threatened to march in the streets.
Museum executive director Richard Hirschhart said the aftermath of the incident was an “epiphany of sorts” for survivors, who were inspired to share their stories.
“For the very first time, they began to speak of their experiences in their own voice, in their own words,” he said.
Organizers said the museum’s goal is to tell the story of the Holocaust, help survivors heal and prevent future atrocities.
During his speech, Clinton apologized for the United States not acting sooner to end violence in places like Rwanda.
Other speakers included writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and President Barack Obama, who said in a video statement that “there is no greater obligation than to confront acts of inhumanity.”
“That is the lesson that school children will learn when they visit this museum,” he said.
The museum was designed in black and white halves, which museum designers said would let visitors enter in the dark and leave in the light.
At the end, visitors stand in the “Hall of Reflection” surrounded by candles and natural light.
Other displays include a Nazi-era cattle car used to transport Jews to concentration camps, children’s clothes, photographs and a hall of artwork.