Albert J. Smith, Skokie Mayor, 1965-1988
April 3, 2017
At a meeting of rabbis and other Jewish community leaders, Skokie Mayor Albert Smith proposed that the city adopt the Jewish Anti-Defense League’s policy of quarantining the NSPA marchers — i.e. allow the march but otherwise ignore it. The attendees unanimously agreed this was the best course of action.
But the Jewish population themselves fiercely opposed such a plan. At meeting after meeting, Holocaust survivors told civic leaders of how the Nazis murdered their spouses, siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. They spoke of the Gestapo taking away relatives, friends and neighbors in trucks never to be seen again. They described horrible atrocities such as storm troopers bashing in the heads of little children and the rape of women and young girls. Survivors from the camps related how “showers” emitted, not water for bathing, but poisonous gases that caused excruciatingly painful deaths. They told of ovens that baked human beings, like so many loaves of bread. They recalled medical “experiments” by “doctors” such as Josef Mengele that could
only be summed up as “unholy.” Even though Mayor Smith had studied the Holocaust long before the NSPA chose to demonstrate in Skokie, he was horrified and sickened by hearing these first hand accounts from his constituents.
Even today, many Survivors are still unwilling to revisit the brutalities done to them and their families. The pain and grief remain so overwhelming that some cannot speak of their experiences even to their own children and grandchildren. Some have tried to bury it deep inside them. With so many Holocaust deniers out there, many survivors still worry that no one will believe that human beings could have done such evil. If seventy and eighty years later, some Survivors still cannot speak of the horrors they lived through, one can imagine how difficult it must have been for the Skokie survivors to give witness back in the 1970's, when the Holocaust had not been that far back in time.
And, indeed, in the post war period, a vast majority was not ready to talk . They had settled in their new homeland, of Skokie, Illinois, in the United States, where they had created new lives for themselves. And so, for most of those years, Survivors were silent, a silence for which they could hardly be blamed.
But, as Neo Nazis threatened to march down their streets, the Skokie Survivors had a change in attitude. Ignore the Nazis? Remain silent? Isn’t that what Jews had tried to do back home in Germany, Poland, Amsterdam, etc? In occupied Europe, hadn’t they hidden in fear of the Nazis breaking down their doors and hauling them away? But what good had it done? Millions had died because no one had spoken up. No one had fought against Evil until it had spread over much of Europe. Now, in 1977, the Jews of Skokie decided it was time to confront these carriers of hate, these men like Frank Collin, who wanted to resurrect the Third Reich in this land of the free and the brave. This time they were going to speak up.
Skokie was not occupied Europe. The Nazis did not control the police. The Nazis were not the ones in power. Here the people held the power. Here the government stood with the Jews. As one Survivor told the Chicago Tribune, “This time they won’t put us in the gas chamber.”
On April 21, 1977, the Synagogue Council of the Northwest Suburbs held its own meeting of representatives from various Jewish organizations. The attendees were in no mood to “quarantine” the Neo Nazis. They resolved to hold a counter-demonstration of their own on May 1 at a location near the NSPA marchers.
Even more significantly, Skokie’s Jews demanded action from their city government. There would be no “quarantine.” There would be no allow and ignore. They expected their civic leaders – the officials sworn to protect them - to fight for them, to take the matter to court. And, if that didn’t work, they would resist on their own. Frank Collin and his NSPA marchers were not going to bring their bigotry, their anti-Semitism, to Dempster Street.
On April 27, village counsel Harvey Schwartz fired the first salvo in the legal battle that became known as Skokie v. National Socialist Party of America. He petitioned the Circuit Court of Cook County for an order enjoining the NSPA from marching.
Copyright © 2017 by Charles Grippo. All rights reserved.