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Skokie Holocaust museum holds conference for law enforcement
By Eileen O. Daday | Daily Herald Correspondent

Volunteer Doris Lazarus leads police officers and firefighters on a tour of the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, part of a conference on the role of law enforcement in the Holocaust. In the foreground is Purim scroll saved from a burning synagogue on Kristallnacht in 1938 in Germany.


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

At the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Chicago Police Officer Henry Morrison listens to some of the first audio recorded in Germany. He attended a two-day conference on law enforcement's role in Nazi Germany.


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Police officers and firefighters from Chicago and the suburbs tour the Warsaw ghetto display at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie.


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Police officers and firefighters from Chicago and the suburbs learned about the rise of Nazis at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie.


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

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Published: 8/23/2009 12:02 AM

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More than 35,000 people have toured the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie since it opened four months ago, and nearly 100 groups have booked field trips there - even before the start of school.

This month, though, the museum held its first conference for a group that, in times of civil discord, can find itself walking the line between protecting and violating civil rights: the law enforcement community.

"Just to see all these officers, in their dress blues, streaming in toward the building, was a thrilling moment," says Richard Hirschhaut, executive director of the museum.

But in Hitler's Germany, police were a far from reassuring sight for Jews, and there are lessons in that the museum staff wanted to convey to new recruits to the field.

The majority of those attending the two-day conference were about to join the ranks patrolling in Chicago; others were new police recruits in suburbs including Woodridge, Matteson, Berwyn and Alsip. Also in attendance were members of the U.S. Customs Service and Skokie police.

Hosted in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League and the FBI, museum officials used Holocaust history, documented at the museum, to specifically examine the role of police in Nazi Europe.

Hirschhaut contends police in Nazi Germany lost sight of their power and the balance required to protect the rights of all people.

"Their role as the law enforcement authority was usurped," Hirschhaut says. "As protectors of the society, their roles collapsed, to the point where they were almost complicit with the Nazis."

He adds that parallels can be drawn between the ethical decisions faced by law enforcement during that period and the choices officers are confronted with today.

"Hate crimes, (racial) profiling and abuses of power are all very relevant issues," Hirschhaut says. "We want to illuminate the special role police play in protecting our democratic system and the most vulnerable among us."

Skokie Police Commander Brian Baker attended the workshop as an observer, to evaluate whether suburban departments would benefit. He found the information illuminating and enlightening.

"Unless you are a real student of the Holocaust, you may not know that Hitler's death squads in the beginning, before he opened the camps, were police," Baker says. "How did it come to that? How did the police, who were charged with protecting people, turn around and do that?"

Woodridge Police Officer William Bodnar, who attended the workshop, thinks he knows the answer.

"It was a conflict with the moral code of the police and what was written into the law," he said. "At some point, someone had to stand up. That's what I've taken away from this: that we have to be vigilant, that this doesn't happen again."

The highlight of the session came when Aaron Elster of Lincolnshire, a survivor of the Holocaust as a child, gave a vivid account of his experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland, before being sent to the Sokolow Ghetto.

"We wanted them to have a personal encounter with Holocaust history," Hirschhaut says. "It was a very sobering moment that was not lost on any of them. They were riveted."

Museum leaders judged the workshop, called the "Law Enforcement and Democracy Initiative," a success and said they hope it leads to future events, both on site and within area departments.

The program was modeled after one offered by the Anti-Defamation League at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Lonnie Nasatir, league regional director, says nearly 50,000 law enforcement professionals nationally have participated already, including new FBI agents and analysts, for whom the workshop is required.