Thousands attend opening of Holocaust museum

April 19, 2009 (SKOKIE, Ill.) Former President Bill Clinton gave the keynote speech and apologized for the United States' failure to act sooner to end recent genocidal violence in places like Rwanda.

The 65,000-square-foot facility is the largest of its kind in the Midwest. It features the testimony of some 2,000 survivors, most of them Skokie area residents.

The museum is the result of years of work, and it carries a $45 million price tag. Organizers hope the museum will tell the story of the Holocaust through narratives, help survivors heal and prevent future atrocities.

The Holocaust Museum was created by a group of survivors who were stirred into action 30 years ago when a neo-Nazi group threatened to march in Skokie. After years of hard work and fundraising, April 19 was chosen as the day to open because it marks the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, which was the largest revolt by Jews against the Nazis.

A boxcar similar to the ones that hauled Jews to their deaths, the names of victims inscribed on the wall, artifacts, documents and photographs from Chicago area survivors all live in the two wings of the museum. One wing is dark symbolizing the past, and the other is light representing hope.

Thirty years in the making, thousands gathered under a rain-soaked tent to celebrate the opening of the museum Sunday.

" You will learn how it was done," said author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. "But you will not know why it happened. Nobody knows why."

The German ambassador to the United States could not answer that question. Klaus Scharioth says he was humbled to be a part of Sunday's ceremony and recognized his country's historical guilt and responsibility.

"The murder of 6 million European Jews is probably the most heinous crime in human history. It is certainly the most shameful period in German history," Scharioth said.

However, Wiesel says the 'why' may not be as important as, 'What have we learned from the Holocaust?'

"Had the world learned the lesson, there would be no Cambodia, no Rwanda, no Bosnia, no racism, and no Nazi marches in Skokie," the author said.

Educating future generations about the lessons learned is a major goal of the museum, which embodies years of work by Holocaust survivors living in Skokie.

"It struck me as particularly significant that this will be one of the last, if not the very last, museums built in the U.S. with direct memories and participation of survivors," Clinton said.

ABC7 spoke with one survivor who hopes this museum will help ensure such a tragedy never happens again.Watch the entire interview with Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster.

"Not only have the Jews survived racism and prejudice, people have become aware of it more because of what is happening today," said Shelly Auslander, a Skokie resident.

Skokie was once home to thousands of Holocaust survivors.

The museum predicts it will reach about 250,000 school children throughout Illinois and across the Midwest.

While Illinois was the first state in the U.S. to require students to learn about the Holocaust, a recent survey found that 50 percent of American teenagers graduating from high school could not say what the Holocaust was about.

More information about theIllinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is available online.

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