Decades after the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on Jan. 27, 1945, revealed the magnitude of the Holocaust, an epilogue was witnessed halfway around the world.
“It has come to my attention that on May 1 there is going to be a Nazi parade held in front of the village hall,” a member of the public said at a 1977 meeting of Skokie’s village trustees. “As a Nazi survivor during the Second World War, I’d like to know what you gentlemen are going to do about it.”
By an unlikely chain of events, the fate of a Chicago suburb had been linked to that of Jews who escaped a European genocide.
Until World War II, Chicago’s North Shore was largely off limits to Jews. Property deeds provided that they were only to be sold to white Christians. But Skokie had undeveloped land that homebuilders hoped to capitalize on.
So during the pent-up housing demand of the postwar years, those developers got the word out to residents of Chicago’s Jewish neighborhoods that Skokie was open to them.
The town’s Jewish population grew exponentially. By contrast, in neighboring Evanston, subsequently to become a liberal community, Jews only got property for a synagogue with the aid of Unitarians, who quietly bought it for them.
Meanwhile, Holocaust survivors were looking for someplace to rebuild their lives. Immediately after the war, some had returned to their Polish hometowns. But that ended abruptly when more than 40 Jews were killed during a pogrom that began in Kielce and spread to other cities in 1946.
“Reports of apparently systematic attacks on Jews attributed by the government to fascist elements are received every day,” the Tribune reported in a dispatch from Warsaw. “They tell of bandits who board trains and trolley cars in suburban districts, strip and rob Jews and drag them away to be murdered.”
The U.S. wasn’t interested in taking in survivors, so they languished in displaced persons camps — some formerly Nazi concentration camps.
“We survivors had so much trouble to come to the U.S.,” recalled Erna Gans, founder of the Skokie Holocaust Memorial, in 1994. “The American authorities questioned and re-questioned us. Our concentration camp guards went through with no problem at all.”
When the neo-Nazis announced their march in Skokie, its population was about 60,000, an estimated half of whom were Jewish. Approximately 7,000 residents were thought to be Holocaust survivors. Its mayor said it was largest concentration of Hitler’s victims outside of Israel.
Howard Reich, the former Tribune music critic, recalled what attracted survivors, like his parents, to Skokie.
“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,” Reich wrote in Moment magazine in 2010.
That landscape also appealed to Frank Collin as a way to promote his antisemitic ideology. He was the leader of a small neo-Nazi group with headquarters on the Southwest Side, and an enigma to his family. “We don’t know how or when it started,” Gertrude Hardyman, Collin’s grandmother, told the Tribune. “It’s a mystery.”
Collin’s father was a German Jew who survived the Dachau concentration camp, she explained.
Skokie’s authorities were sure of one thing about Collin: Given the village’s demographics, he and his followers shouldn’t be allowed to march in Nazi uniforms carrying flags emblazoned with the swastika that flew over Auschwitz.
Ordinances prohibiting that event were quickly enacted. Just as quickly, civil libertarians cried foul.
“As a Jew, I abhor the fuss being raised in Skokie by members of the Jewish ethnic community,” Sheldon Waxman wrote in a letter to the editor. “People should know, by now, that free speech defuses the ticking time bomb of hatred.”
The Jewish War Veterans organization said they would mount a counter demonstration. Others said that would give the neo-Nazis the publicity they were seeking. Better to stay off the streets.
“But there was a time we were told to stay at home when the Nazis marched through the streets,” Gans said. “That won’t happen again.”
In her youth, the strategy of the European Jewish leaders was to avoid confrontations with Hitler’s followers. Eventually the German people would be tired of his antics. Rule of law would be restored, and life would return to normal for Jews.
Instead, the Holocaust followed.
Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson agreed that the Nazi march wasn’t simply an extension of Collin’s constitutional right to freely speak his mind.
When the American Civil Liberties Union agreed to represent Collin, a philosophical dispute became a knockdown, drag-out battle.
“It was inevitable that the ACLU would defend the 1st Amendment in Skokie,” its director David Hamlin wrote in a Tribune op-ed. “The ACLU is more than 55 years old, and it has defended the 1st amendment vigorously through out its history.”
In fact, the organization was simultaneously trying to keep its dirty linen from being aired in public.
Hamlin objected to the release of ACLU files showing that during the red-baiting of the 1940s, its officials, “had systematically provided the FBI with information on their own organization and some of its own members.” Instead of defending Communists, the ACLU had squealed on them.
Many ACLU members were outraged at the ACLU’s defense of neo-Nazis. “Without the free help of the ACLU these despicable people would be relegated to muttering among themselves instead of seeing the name of their party in the headlines of the major newspapers of the country,” a Northfield resident said in a letter to the Tribune. “Therefore I want my name removed from ACLU membership rolls.”
By August of 1977, 700 to 1,000 local members had resigned. Plus 2,000 from other chapters, Hamlin reported. Shortly, he stepped down.
Some objected to the objectors. Congressman Abner Mikva, a prominent liberal who favored banning the march, was chastised by a Northwestern University professor who also, as the Tribune reported, expressed, “sympathy for residents of the heavily Jewish suburb who will be distraught if the march takes place.”
The ACLU got a court order allowing a Nazi march in Marquette Park on Chicago’s Southwest Side, but that further antagonized the organized Jewish community, as the Tribune reported: “The Public Affairs Committee (of the Jewish United Fund) will not in any manner condone, aid, or abet the promotion of Nazi or any other racist doctrine in Skokie or any other community.”
The most poignant memory of the contorted affair was George Baum’s. “My interest in the Nazis’ march is personal. It recalls a march under different circumstances,” he noted in an August 1977 Tribune op-ed.
In 1945, Baum was freed by Russian soldiers from the Terezin concentration camp, a way-station en route to Auschwitz’s gas chambers. Of the 15,000 Jewish children who had been imprisoned there, by some estimates fewer than 150 survived.
As their Nazi guards were being marched away fellow inmates, shrunken by starvation and dressed in rags, pummeled them until the Russians said it was enough.
“How can one hate, when hate has brought so much suffering? How can one keep his own sanity if he adopts the insanes’ ways?” Baum recalled asking himself as a 12-year old.
“Today I still understand the question. But the answers still elude me, as they have eluded mankind.”
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