Bernard Cherkasov was 13 years old when his family fled Azerbaijan.
SKOKIE, Ill. (WLS) -- Bernard Cherkasov was 13 years old when his family escaped antisemitism and fled Azerbaijan.
He is now the new Chief Executive Officer of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. It is an institution dedicated to honoring those who were lost in the Holocaust while also teaching lessons to combat hatred, prejudice and indifference.
It seems those are much needed lessons these days. The Anti-Defamation League released results of a survey conducted last fall that found about one in five American adults believe negative stereotypes about Jewish people. That's compared to about one in nine back in 2019.
"What I see unfortunately, are signs of it moving into the mainstream. It's now part of the political discourse. We have even members of Congress and other political leaders who are using antisemitic tropes and what they're doing is that they're validating the beliefs that used to be on the fringes," said Cherkasov.
"Nearly 80 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, we're still grappling with many of the injustices, prejudices, atrocities that we had hoped would be eliminated by now and that we would be in a much better place," said Cherkasov, "We are bearing witness to a world that is still marked by war, and discrimination, atrocity in every corner and even in our own country we're seeing an increase in antisemitism and racism and all kinds of other prejudices and injustices. At the same time, everywhere I look I see cause for optimism and hope."
Cherkasov said his family's journey after leaving Azerbaijan took them thousands of miles and across many countries.
"But, what really framed my outlook on life is not the experience of fleeing, but the stories of the folks we encountered along the way. People we met on our journey to Austria, through Italy and even when we arrived in America who did selfless, inconvenient, moral things to help us," Cherkasov said.
So, how do we move forward?
"First, by not giving up," Cherkasov said. "And, I find hope in this new generation. My daughter is 13 years old, and I hear the conversations that she's having with her peers, and when they see injustices, when they see where some of the political discourse is heading, they take issue with that, and they're speaking out against it. They're very well-informed, and I find optimism in that, and hope for the future. And, I also find hope in how the community is responding to the programs that the Holocaust Museum, for example, it putting together. It's not just about learning what happened in the past. It's also about learning about small ways and big ways in which we can take a stance right now."