To me, a kid growing up in the 1960s and '70s, Skokie seemed like any other suburb, its tidy houses sitting on impeccably manicured lawns.
Sure, on Friday nights and Saturday mornings you'd sometimes see Hasidic Jews strolling to and from synagogue. In temple, you'd catch a glimpse of a blue-green number tattooed on someone's forearm. In stores, you'd often hear thick accents — rolled "R's" and guttural consonants — borne of an earlier life in Eastern Europe.
But back then I had no clue that the tiny town where my family had moved from East Rogers Park when I was 10 was a kind of ground zero for Holocaust survivors in America. Even though both my parents — and my surviving uncles and aunts — had escaped the executions Hitler had planned for them, the uniqueness of Skokie utterly eluded me.
It took a neo-Nazi named Frank Collin to bring the point home, when he ignited a worldwide media sensation by threatening to lead his small band of followers on a march in Skokie in the late 1970s. The anguish he caused the survivors quickly became apparent through news stories documenting their outrage on TV and radio and on the front pages of newspapers everywhere. But the gravity of what they endured has come into sharper focus with a new documentary, "Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered," which will have its world premiere Thursday evening at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie and will be broadcast at 8 p.m. Jan. 24 on WTTW-Ch. 11. (Full disclosure: I'm interviewed in the film.)
In a way, I now realize, you could divide life in Skokie into two crisply defined periods: before Collin and after.
Before, Skokie seemed a nearly idyllic place, kids riding yellow buses to school in the morning and playing ball in the streets afterward, well into the evening. Beneath that picturesque facade, however, the estimated 7,000 to 8,000 Holocaust survivors who had migrated to Skokie — a town barely 10 miles square — suffered immense but private pain.
In our house, my father never made it through a night's sleep without waking up several times, in his dreams killing Nazis, he said. My mother rarely slept in bed, instead sitting in the dark on our living room floor, peering out the window, as if keeping a vigil for dangers ahead. My sister and I were not allowed to take showers — only baths — and it took me years to understand my parents' fear of them.
But though survivors like my parents yelled among each other about the miseries they had suffered and the relatives they had lost during the Holocaust, they kept a decidedly low profile outside their circle. American Jews in Skokie have told me through the years that they had no idea so many survivors lived in their midst.
That changed spectacularly after Collin emerged in the late '70s. All at once, the survivors who had kept their pasts so veiled and worked so hard to try to assimilate into American life stepped into the spotlight. They told anyone who would listen that they would not allow Collin and his brown-shirted, swastika-wearing ilk in the place where they had found refuge after the war. They would go to court to stop him. And if that failed, they would meet him in the streets.
At the time, I was dumbfounded by the hysteria that gripped the survivors, including my father, who said he would "break Frank Collin's head," and I believed him. To me, Collin seemed like a clown who had stumbled into a degree of media notoriety that hadn't been seen here since, perhaps, Richard Speck had killed eight student nurses in 1966. Why would my father, and the other survivors, even give this pathetic man such attention and importance?
But the survivors witnessed this spectacle with very different eyes. They had seen another pathetic man rise to become chancellor of Germany in 1933 and the architect of their near-destruction. Collin had made a point of using the same language as Hitler, speaking on TV interviews about "the final solution to the Jewish question" (though Collin himself was the son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor).
To traumatized survivors in Skokie, this was not the First Amendment debate that would be litigated all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. To them, the issue was much simpler than that: The Nazis were back and promising to continue their quest.
As then-village counsel Harvey Schwartz once told me, "When someone wants to come marching into your town, with the announced intention to kill you, there was hardly anything left to discuss."
The Supreme Court in 1978 upheld Collin's First Amendment right to march, yet Collin never did, instead taking his demonstration to Chicago. I can't help but think that the survivors' widely expressed determination to stop him by force contributed to his decision.
So though Collin won in court, the survivors won where it counted: in the streets where they lived.
More important, though, the grand legal and public battles of 1977 and '78 transformed the survivors and the town they had made into a shtetl (a small Jewish village) in America replete with synagogues, Hebrew schools, Jewish delis and kosher markets and butcher shops. After Collin, they opened the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in a storefront on Main Street, a few blocks from my family's house, in 1984; built a Holocaust monument in downtown Skokie in 1987; persuaded the Legislature to make Illinois the first state in the country to require Holocaust education, in 1990; and launched the museum's state-of the-art new headquarters at 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie on April 19, 2009.
Today, the world's remaining Holocaust survivors are dying off, but their story endures.
And nowhere in America does it resonate more deeply than in Skokie.
Tribune arts critic Howard Reich is the author of "Prisoner of Her Past," a book and PBS documentary.
Twitter @howardreichCopyright © 2015, RedEye