The frayed belt that held up tattered pants testifies to an indomitable spirit of an orphaned boy. The blanket a father wrapped his daughter in as they escaped a ghetto serves as a reminder of enduring love. The videotaped testimony of Holocaust survivors willing to confront the horror to ensure that history doesn't repeat itself reflects a special kind of courage.
Those are among the treasured gifts suburban families have made to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, which opens today in Skokie.
The opening marks the realization of a dream shared by suburban Holocaust survivors Sam Harris, Fritzie Fritzshall, Cipora Katz, Felicia Munn Brenner and countless other volunteers, donors and survivors who over two decades helped make the vision of the museum become a reality.
Here are their stories:
Today, Sam Harris of Kildeer concludes a marathon he's been running for more than 20 years.
During that time, Harris, fellow Holocaust survivors, museum officials and countless volunteers have worked to establish a new, larger home for the museum, which had been in a Skokie storefront.
Today they cross the finish line. Harris compares the feeling to the exhilaration a runner feels stretching his chest forward to break the tape at the finish line.
"It was a dream that started with the hope it would finish the way it did, but it was not me running alone," the 73-year-old museum board president said.
Yet Harris says his job won't be done until genocide no longer exists, until the phrase Righteous Person applies to every person, not just those non-Jews who aided and sheltered the persecuted. The names of those individuals are included on a wall that surrounds a reflecting pool adjacent to the museum.
"That is the utmost of humanity," he said of the rescuers, "that there are people who risked their lives to save another human being."
Harris says the reflecting pool is one of his favorite places in the museum, but adds that each little corner is a "jewel of memory."
"It will strike each survivor a little differently," said Harris, "but the part that will get me emotionally will be the cattle car."
The centerpiece of the museum's permanent collection, the railroad car is like one that transported him as a child from his home in the Deblin, Poland ghetto, to the Czestochowa concentration camp, also in Poland. As the train passed railroad crossings, Harris heard children laughing and dogs barking outside.
"The part I remember most was how I wished I was out there," said Harris, who recounted his experiences in his book, "Sammy: Childhood Survivor of the Holocaust by Samuel R. Harris."
More than anything, he wanted to be one of those children instead of a thirsty, starving boy trapped inside that cattle car.
Harris lost his parents and four siblings to the Holocaust and every personal item save one, a little brown belt. "It was the only thing I had left of my past," he said.
It became a kind of talisman. He showed the belt to students when he spoke at schools. When he returned to Poland a few years ago, he took the belt with him.
Finally, he donated it to the museum. "If only my belt could speak, it would say the things I couldn't say," he said.
Fritzie Fritzshall knows well the German boxcar that occupies the cleave between the light and dark wings of the holocaust museum. One just like it carried her to Auschwitz. Her grandfather died in one.
"The entire museum speaks to me," said Fritzshall, 77. "The entire museum tells the story."
But the railroad car speaks loudest. And not just to her. The Buffalo Grove resident tells schoolchildren touring the museum that if they stand quietly, they might hear the voices of the children it carried to the camps.
Fritzshall hears the voices, sees the faces of the loved ones she lost. "We all speak for those who are no longer here."
Fritzshall speaks for her Aunt Bella, whose name is etched into the wall of the museum's Room of Remembrance. Already at Auschwitz when Fritzshall arrived, Bella sold her bread ration to make room for her 13-year-old niece in her bunk.
"She was truly my guardian angel," said Fritzshall, who donated a photograph of her mother and aunts to the museum. "She put her arms around me every single night and said, 'We will make it. Tomorrow will be better.'"
Bella did not survive. Fritzshall was sent to work in a factory. The youngest of an all-female slave labor force, she describes herself as daughter to 599 mothers.
"These women took turns taking care of me," she said. "I made them a promise that I'd tell the world if I survived. I was their hope."
But for years, Fritzshall remained silent about the past. Now that she has found her voice, she speaks for Bella and the 599 women, for her mother and two brothers and millions more.
"Fifty years from now people are going to stand up and say 'we have accomplished what we set out to do, young people have learned their lessons from this museum.'"
For decades Cipora Katz kept her memories of the Holocaust locked away.
Then she met Steven Spielberg. He interviewed the Skokie resident in 1995 for his Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. That marked the first time she spoke publicly about the Holocaust, about how at age 4, she and seven members of her family escaped the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland and spent nearly two years hiding in a potato silo owned by a veterinarian acquaintance who supplied them with food. For 22 months and three days, they remained in the dark, cramped space, enduring illness, sleeping on top of each other, holding hands, reciting prayers. Her father died there, and his body remained unburied for seven days until the benefactor and his son could thaw a plot of land in which to bury him.
After talking with Spielberg, Katz packed up her memories once more. A few years ago, she spoke up again, offering to donate to the museum her "most important treasure:" the blanket her father wrapped her in as they escaped the ghetto.
She relinquished it with mixed feelings. "It meant so much," said Katz, 70. "It was my link to my past, my present and future."
"The main reason I am sharing my painful past is to make sure no one ever says the Holocaust never happened," she said. "It's very painful and I still break down, but it's so important because we must never forget."
Felicia Munn Brenner
Felicia Munn Brenner had no artifacts from her life before her imprisonment at Auschwitz to donate to the museum she helped found.
But she did have her memories which the Lodz, Poland native shared with thousands of people over the years as a member of the Illinois Holocaust Museum speakers bureau. Preserved on videotape, they are now part of the museum's permanent exhibit.
"She was an eloquent speaker," said Munn Brenner's daughter Judy Shiffman, of Arlington Heights.
The sole survivor of seven siblings, Munn Brenner once spoke to 1,000 high school students who had never met a Holocaust survivor.
"You could have heard a pin drop," recalled Shiffman, whose father Tibor Munn, a native of Budapest, Hungary, also survived the Holocaust. "When she finished, the whole place stood up."
After the war, Shiffman's parents relocated to Chicago's Albany Park where they established an extended family with other survivors. When the adults spoke about the war, they spoke in Yiddish, Shiffman said. No one mentioned the camps, ever.
It wasn't until she was older, and asked her mother where the rest of their family was, that Shiffman began to comprehend what her parents experienced.
"They had always tried to assimilate to fit in and try to live a normal life," she said. "They tried to protect us from the traumatizing things they had been through."
Her parents remained silent, until the late 1970s when the Nazis attempted to march on Skokie, where the Munn family moved in 1955. Then Munn Brenner spoke out.
"She was a fighter," said Shiffman. "She said if people were trying to say it never happened, it was time to answer that."
Felicia Munn Brenner didn't live to see the museum's new home. But Shiffman and her sister are having their mother's diary chronicling her first five years in America after the war translated from Yiddish to English, When that's complete, they'll donate the diary to the museum, ensuring that their mother's words continue to inform and inspire.
If you go
What: Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
Where: 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie
When: Opens today
Hours: Mondays, closed. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: $8 for general admission, $6 for students and seniors and children, ages 5 to 12, are $5.
More information: 847-967-4800 or www.ilholocaustmuseum.org.