Onetime Skokie residents Jack, now of Lone Tree, and Eli Adler stand in front of the Auschwitz gate. The father and son made a trip to Poland and Germany as part of Surviving Skokie, a documentary that connects anguish over a planned neo-Nazi march in the Chicago suburb to the experiences of Holocaust survivors who lived there. Photo courtesy of Eli Adler
Onetime Skokie residents Jack, now of Lone Tree, and Eli Adler stand in front of the Auschwitz gate. The father and son made a trip to visit Jack’s former hometown of Poland and the former German-occupied concentration camps, as part of Surviving Skokie, a documentary that connects anguish over a planned neo-Nazi march in the Chicago suburb to the experiences of Holocaust survivors who lived there. Photo courtesy of Eli Adler
BY PETER JONES
Surviving Skokie was the film Eli Adler was destined to make.
“The seed was planted at birth for me, but it didn’t germinate for 55 years,” he said.
As the son of a Holocaust survivor and having grown up in the Chicago suburb best known for an aborted march by neo-Nazis, Adler, 60, had an obvious connection to the story, but it was not until the founding of Skokie’s Illinois Holocaust Museum in 2009 that the Emmy-winning cinematographer decided to take on the difficult subject in his directorial debut.
“So many of the children of survivors I grew up with in Skokie took their stories to their grave,” the now-California-based Alder said, noting that many survivors never told their experiences to their offspring. “These stories are crucial and they need to be told. There’s a certain catharsis that happens with my dad when he tells his stories.”
More than 30 years after World War II, survivors would again endure the specter of Nazi brown shirts goose-stepping down Main Street when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the National Socialist Party of America had a First Amendment right to demonstrate in Skokie, a city whose population was nearly 60 percent Jewish, with some 7,000 survivors among them.
“You can’t be a Jew who grew up in Skokie and not be affected by this event—especially a Holocaust survivor,” Adler said.
That survivor in question was Jack Adler, 86, the filmmaker’s father. The Lone Tree resident—and sole survivor of his family—was profiled in April in a cover story in The Villager.
The movie, Surviving Skokie, which tells much the same account, turned out to be, in part, a father-son narrative when the two returned to the Adlers’ original hometown in Poland, and to the former German-occupied ghetto and concentration camps where most of the family was killed.
Thanks to the editing of co-director and editor Blair Gershkow, the one-hour documentary seamlessly ties that emotional journey to the events in Skokie that galvanized much of the nation and brought new meaning to the word “survive.”
“There are hundreds of Holocaust documentaries out there and we wanted ours to stand out somehow,” the younger Adler said. “We struggled with it and finally came up with that particular format.”
Surviving Skokie will have its Colorado debut, Nov. 8-10, during the Denver Film Festival at the United Artists at Denver Pavilions. Both Adlers will appear in person.
Residents of Skokie and others protest a planned neo-Nazi march through the Jewish-dominated suburb in Surviving Skokie, which plays the Denver Film Festival, Nov. 8-10. Photo courtesy of Eli Adler
Trouble in Jewish Mayberry
For years, Skokie, Ill., promoted itself as “the world’s largest village.” Named for the Potawatomi word for “marsh,” the city bordering Chicago to the north was a farming haven for—ironically—German immigrants before a sizable Jewish population took root after the war.
“It was one of the few towns that welcomed Jews at the time,” Eli Adler said. “It was affordable. There were delis everywhere. It was like Mayberry. It was a quiet safe suburb.”
At the same time, the migration of Southern blacks to the once-white south side of Chicago was slowly creating a hotbed of racism in the same city that had seen violent clashes between police and protesters during the Democratic National Convention of 1968.
Enter Frank Collin, leader of the Chicago-based National Socialist Party of America, whose plans to hold a rally in the city’s Marquette Park were quelled when officials, fearing the violence that had occurred at the group’s earlier rallies, required a cost-prohibitive insurance bond.
Collin quickly set his eyes on Skokie, as the perfect site to test his free-speech rights while stoking the flames of the Holocaust in a largely Jewish suburb. When Skokie balked, the ACLU—led by Jewish attorney David Goldberg—drew public outrage as it came to Collin’s defense, successfully taking the First Amendment case to the nation’s highest court in 1977.
“In this particular case, I liken it to crying fire in a crowded theater,” Adler said, noting that survivors comprised about 10 percent of Skokie’s population. “It gave the ACLU a black eye. If you were to go to the ACLU website, I don’t think you’re going to find any reference to that particular case, which was a major victory for them.”
Despite the expensive and highly publicized win, the pressure of death threats was evidently too much for Collin, who abruptly canceled the Skokie march after reaching a compromise with the City of Chicago—though the downtown rallies saw more counter-protestors than Nazis.
“Something would have happened,” Adler said of the planned Skokie march. “Survivors were putting guns in their cars. The Jewish Defense League was beating the crap out of them everywhere they went. There was such an outpouring of support for the survivor population. They were totally outnumbered even with the protection of the police.”
Oddly enough, Collin, formerly Cohen or Cohn, was also the son of an apparent Holocaust survivor and had been reviled by some within the neo-Nazi movement.
He later served seven years in prison for child molestation before reinventing himself as “Frank Joseph,” a new-age writer of such neo-paganist tomes as Synchronicity & You: Understanding the Role of Meaningful Coincidence in Your Life.
Adler made ill-fated efforts to interview the aging Collin for the film.
“He emailed me back and said he and his wife were of ill health and he didn’t remember much from that period,” the director said.
If it were not clear already, Surviving Skokie’s second act, a father-son trip back to Poland, Auschwitz and Dachau, drives home the pain that a march through Skokie would have inflicted on Holocaust survivors, like onetime Skokie resident Jack Adler.
To this day, the Lone Tree father and grandfather—and sole survivor of his six-member birth family—has difficulty conveying emotions, even as he proudly witnesses the accomplishments of Eli and the other descendants he calls his “miracle family.”
“I feel the joy inside, but I can’t express joy,” he told The Villager in April.
Of his return to Auschwitz, which coincided with the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, Adler called the trip a “mixed bag.”
“But if Hitler would see this, he would commit suicide all over again,” he said.
Most striking to son Eli about the pilgrimage was their eerie and highly emotional visit to the preserved train cars that once transported Jews to Auschwitz.
“That was the one that really hit me hard,” he said. “It could have been the actual boxcar that his father, he and two sisters took the trip on.”
By the time of their arrival at Auschwitz, Jack had already lost his mother and brother to starvation in a Nazi ghetto in German-occupied Poland. His younger sister would soon be killed in the gas chambers. His father and older sister would die of sickness or starvation.
Jack would narrowly survive the death march out of Dachau in the waning days of the war.
The boy eventually made it to Skokie, where he was taken in by a kindly foster family.
“The way they treated me, I regained faith in humanity,” he said.
Adler’s story was all too common among his fellow Skokie residents. Ironically, it was the eventual threat of a Nazi march that riled the city’s people to take hold of their stories, transform them into education and found the city’s Holocaust Museum and Education Center—the institution that prompted Adler’s son to make his PBS-bound documentary.
“If Frank Collin had any idea what the result of his threatened march would have been and what impact it had on the survivor population, I don’t think he would have planned a march,” the filmmaker said. “They were silent in Europe. They were not going to be silent in Skokie.”
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