Young Jewish men who have been assigned work clearing snow stand in front of a formation of German troops, Częstochowa Ghetto in occupied Poland (circa 1939-1943).
March 13, 2017
In March, 1977, the village of Skokie, Illinois, was a quiet suburb of Chicago. Like most middle-class communities, it had restaurants, shops, a public library, a movie theater, schools, and houses of worship. Its population of 70,000 was roughly divided between Catholics and Jews. Of its 40,000 or so Jewish residents, between 5,000 to 7,000 were Holocaust survivors, and many others had lost relatives and friends to the Nazis.
That year, in a Federal courtroom only a few miles away in downtown Chicago, the U.S. Justice Department was asking Judge Julius Hoffman to strip retired factory worker Frank Walus of his citizenship and allow his deportation. Justice Department attorneys alleged that Walus had failed to disclose on his citizenship application that he had been a member of the Gestapo who had committed and concealed atrocities against Jews in Poland. Walus was being represented by counsel and given his due process rights -- a far cry from occupied Europe, where the Gestapo had not given the same rights to the Jews they had arrested.
In Skokie, Jews felt comparatively safe. There were no storm troopers breaking down their doors and hauling them off to terrible fates. They could go about their lives as they chose. Nonetheless, there were disturbing concerns that the Nazis had never really gone away, that “it could happen again.” That spring Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal told the Chicago Tribune that “hatred was still a threat.” He warned that neo-Nazi groups were operating on the same level of propaganda as Hitler, Goebbels, et al, had done in Germany in the 1920's. In fact, in March of that year a self-described Nazi had murdered five people in New Rochelle, N.Y. Wiesenthal said all the neo-Nazis were looking for was a “crisis” in a democracy to trigger a full-scale rebirth of the Third Reich.
Little did the residents of Skokie know that men with hatred in their hearts were plotting to turn their village into the epicenter of that crisis. They did not know that soon the name of their town would be repeated endlessly in the international press. The Survivors did not know that, once again, right here in this country where they thought they were safe, they would have to face the same uniforms and symbols that had brought unspeakable pain into their lives. This time, however, they would not be alone. Their hometown would be a key player in one of the most important First Amendment cases in the post-war era.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of that epic battle. Sadly, in 2017, the same bigotry and anti-Semitism that shook Skokie are rearing their heads again. We at Grippo Stage Company believe there is much to be learned from revisiting that experience. Each Monday, for the next several weeks, we will bring you the story of how the courageous people of Skokie – Jews and Gentiles alike – joined together to fight evil. We know you will find their story inspiring.
NEXT IN THE SERIES - March 16th: Setting the Stage, Part 2
Copyright © 2017 by Charles Grippo. All rights reserved.