The geographical place name in the title of the Illinois Holocaust Museum probably doesn't do the institution any favors.
What, a potential visitor might think, could a Midwestern state have to add to one of the darkest chapters of the human story? Who would want to see Nazi mass murder in some way regionalized, localized, made, one might fear, smaller?
These are understandable concerns, and they may help explain why more people haven't visited the 5-year-old museum and why it is rarely top-of-mind in discussions of the area's leading attractions. But such fears have almost nothing to do with the reality of this superbly crafted house of documentation and remembrance that sits alongside the Edens Expressway in Skokie.
Yes, the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, to use the full title, does incorporate the stories of area Holocaust survivors into its tale of depraved human behavior and the reactions to it, ranging from the heroic to the shockingly indifferent.
But seeing our neighbors at the heart of the main exhibition plays not as distraction but as a kind of personalization of the message. We can relate, perhaps a little more, to the picture of the U.S. soldier Jerry Glass, from Chicago, with his head in his hand, seated, seemingly overwhelmed, outside the newly liberated Mauthausen concentration camp. Knowing that some of these people would go from Auschwitz to Skokie, where 7,000 Holocaust survivors and their families were living in the mid-1970s, makes one think twice about the seeming mundanity of suburban life.
But the museum is in no way dependent on regional identification or narrowed down in its focus. Its dramatic, vividly detailed permanent exhibition, the heart of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, is among the finest museum pieces Chicago has to offer.
The exhibit aims to tell the full Holocaust story of what happened and why it happened, guiding visitors along a path into darkness, then back out of it.
Along the way, they may or may not notice, the floor gets ever lower, until it reaches the concentration camp galleries, then climbs again. You can read the material in great detail or in overview, just as you are given fair warning to be able to skip some of the most harrowing moments.
It begins with the circumstances of Jews in Europe as the 20th century commenced. Then, along one wall, we see Hitler's rise to power in Germany while, on the opposite surface, the nation's Jews react to escalating Nazi provocations. The Deutsches Museum in Munich, we learn, was conscripted into the state-led anti-Semitism, with a show called "The Eternal Jew" that drew more than 400,000 people in a few months beginning in late 1937.
The two parallel tracks meet at a dramatic turning point in the exhibit and in history. Kristallnacht, the near-simultaneous burning of synagogues throughout Germany and symbolic end of hope for Jews in the country, is represented in the exhibition by a set of synagogue doors and a stunning, cracked-glass floor. On the wall just outside are scores of passports belonging to German Jews stamped with the red "J," for Juden.
The exhibition, put together by the local designer David Layman, repeatedly finds fresh moments in a story some may feel they've heard many times already. The galleries devoted to brief, cruel existence in concentration camps are chilling. The full-wall photograph of Babi Yar, a beautiful woodland ravine outside Kiev, Ukraine, comes as a stark contrast to almost all the galleries that came before; artifacts and text suddenly yield to wide-scope nature photography, but in the center is a video screen that shows and tells of the mass killing that happened in that place.
One of the most potent galleries is one whose inclusion might come as a surprise; it's devoted to a meeting. The 12th of 29 rooms along this pathway tells of the Wannsee Conference, from 1942. In a Berlin suburb, the Nazi leadership, almost all educated, "civilized" men, plotted their "final solution," mechanized homicide on a scale previously unseen.
Prior to that meeting, stark letters on a wall inform visitors, 80 percent of the European Jews who were to die were still alive. Eighteen months later, the same proportion of that population was dead.
There is rawness in the Holocaust story, of course, moments of overwhelming power, but the telling is mostly steely and fact-based. And at the end, after we have seen tales of liberation and heroism, after we have followed camp survivors and displaced Europeans to their new homes, after the wall of photos of Jewish children holding name cards so relatives might find them, the story comes full circle.
The attempted march by American Nazis in Skokie in the late 1970s might seem like localization of the story, but it was this provocation, the exhibition explains, that prompted many of the survivors in the area and in the world to begin telling their stories. The museum keeps an active speakers' roster of some 50 survivors, liberators and witnesses. In a new program, every second Sunday at the museum will see a free, 12:30 p.m. talk by one of them. And the museum itself, in a sense, is a byproduct of that march, which never came off. It led Chicago-area survivors to form the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois.
From that group came, first, a storefront museum, and, in 2009, the $45 million black-and-white Illinois Holocaust Museum on Woods Drive, across the Edens from Old Orchard mall and to the south.
In addition to being strangely oriented on its site — for symbolism, rather than easy visitor comprehension — the Stanley Tigerman-designed building is foreboding. Reviewing it in 2009, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin called the exterior "cartoonish" and "overloaded with metaphors that distract from the museum's central focus of honoring the dead and enlightening the living."
But inside that fades away. Beneath the permanent exhibition, which dominates the first floor, there are lower-level galleries for temporary shows.
The current "Through Soviet Jewish Eyes" is a spectacular collection of World War II-era photographs of war and liberation, especially the work of Dmitrii Baltermants.
Next to that, an exhibition aimed at younger children frames questions raised by the Holocaust in the terms of contemporary social life: How would you stand up to bullies, for instance?
On the upper floor is the Legacy of Absence Gallery, a potent collection of artworks on the theme of mass murder and its traces.
And, yes, there is a gift shop, a book-heavy presence that has not been controversial like the one at the newly opened National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City.
But getting people to come, to recognize this nearly hidden gem, hasn't been easy. Attendance has risen steadily, largely because of growing popularity among school groups. Some 60 percent of last year's 100,000 visitors were children on field trips, said museum youth educator Amanda Friedeman.
The subject matter is, of course, a tough sell. The family has a rare Sunday when everyone is free. What'll it be: a show about, say, Vikings at the Field Museum or, in a lowered voice, "the Holocaust" in a building that requires an airport-style security check at the entrance?
Because of this, the traffic patterns differ from those at other museums, apparently.
"When it's a beautiful day, our attendance goes up," said Friedeman, the theory being that people might be able to summon more resolve. But what she tries to emphasize, she said, is that "you come in to learn about a dark period in history, but you leave inspired and empowered."
And it's true. Moments of resilience shine through, from the pre-war "Kindertransport," saving Jewish children, to the extraordinary acts of resistance, community and documentation in the Warsaw ghetto.
There's an image at the end of the main exhibit, just a small photograph, that makes the point about inspiration vividly. Early on, photos of mass Nazi rallies effectively demonstrated the terror spreading through Germany.
The picture at the permanent exhibition's end was taken in June 1981, when the front of the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, hosted the "World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors." That sea of humanity is a mass rally of an entirely different sort.
Don't miss: There is a sort of catwalk on the upper floor that takes visitors directly above some of the galleries of the permanent exhibition. This fascinating perspective lets you hear the exhibit's melange of sound, for instance, and look down on the barbed wire strung above the concentration camp rooms.
Don't bother: Trying to grapple with what the building exterior itself is supposed to mean is in some cases too easy — black and white — and in others, a struggle. Just go in and get to the exhibits.
Pro tips: Exterior signage is minimal. The vehicle entrance off Woods Drive is just to the north of the building. There's cafeteria space and vending machines inside, but no food service. When inside, to decompress, take some time to visit the two second-floor reflective spaces. Tigerman's memorial Room of Remembrance reaches for the sky, the first names of victims written on the walls. The adjacent Hall of Reflection offers more space for contemplation.
Illinois Holocaust Museum
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, Thursdays to 8 p.m.
Where: 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie
Tickets: $12 adults; 847-967-4800 or ilholocaustmuseum.org