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‘Invaded But Not Conquered’ documents Skokie neo-Nazi uproar

Neo-Nazi Frank Coll1978 announces he is calling off march Skokie after his group is allowed demonstrate Chicago. | Chicago Sun-Times

Neo-Nazi Frank Collin in 1978 announces he is calling off a march in Skokie after his group is allowed to demonstrate in Chicago. | Chicago Sun-Times Library

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Invaded But Not Conquered’

8 to 9 p.m. Thursday on WTTW-Channel 11

Updated: January 22, 2013 7:28PM

One of the many ways to divide time in Skokie is to look at life before and after the neo-Nazis tried to march downtown.

The significance of what Illinois Holocaust Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut calls “a seminal event in history” 35 years ago can still be felt today — in dicey First Amendment cases, in the way communities respond to hate, in how Holocaust survivors were galvanized, even in the creation of the Holocaust Museum itself.

As an enlightening new documentary makes clear, the landmark controversy erupted not at the hands of a large and well-organized group, but from a small band of “wannabe Nazis” that chose Skokie for its demonstration when Chicago wasn’t a viable option.

“Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered,” which will air 8 p.m. Jan. 24 and 2 p.m. Jan. 27 on WTTW, revisits the many twists and turns of the legal fight that surrounded the march. It also recreates the incendiary moments of 1977 and ’78 when the neo-Nazis’ provocation generated passion and pain in Holocaust survivors and their community.

Whitman’s study is packed with key information in its hour, but it never feels too dense and didactic; it’s light on its feet by mixing contemporary interviews with archival footage as well as clips from the likes of “Skokie,” the Danny Kaye TV movie about the events, the “Donahue” show and “The Blues Brothers” movie.

Having the likable Aaron Freeman of WTTW as its narrator even allows some humor to creep through.

Yet for the 7,000 Holocaust survivors who called Skokie home then, they found nothing too funny when Frank Collin and his National Socialist Party of America wanted to demonstrate in Skokie.

Survivors including Sam Harris and Aaron Elster, both of whom lost most of their families to the Holocaust, express the potential pain of men dressed in Nazi regalia spewing anti-Semitic venom in or near their own backyard.

“Just to see a Nazi flag drove me crazy,” Harris said.

Before Frank Collin came to town, most Holocaust survivors kept quiet about the unimaginable suffering and loss they endured. That changed quickly.

“The survivors — I can’t say it any other way — came out of the woodwork,” said Skokie Rabbi Neil Brief. “They were not going to let this happen again.”

According to current Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen, there was division within village government on how to address the threat. Village Attorney Harvey Schwartz initially wanted to grant the permit, ignore the marchers and let them have their five minutes — the “quarantine” approach. But survivors would not remain quiet, and eventually the village, led by beloved Mayor Al Smith, joined their fight to keep the neo-Nazis out of Skokie.

The Village Board passed three ordinances making it almost impossible for the group to march in town. That may have been enough, had The American Civil Liberties Union not sided with Collin and challenge the local legislation in court.

The documentary does an admirable job of tracing the myriad of rulings, lawsuits, counter suits, appeals and reversals as a new chapter seemed to play out every day. In the end, the neo-Nazis would have been allowed to march in Skokie — they just about did in June of 1978 — had Chicago not eased up on its own restrictions, causing Collin to pull the plug on the Skokie march and march in Chicago instead.

“Invaded But Not Conquered” covers a lot of ground in short time. It affords opportunity for all players and perspectives to be heard. Many featured in the documentary attended last week’s premier at the museum looking a little grayer, but standing by their guiding principles from three-and-a-half decades ago.

The late Erna Gans, a survivor in Skokie, was among the first to vehemently oppose the quarantine approach. Gans in 1977 spoke for the first time publicly about her experiences as a survivor, leading the fight to keep the neo-Nazis away. Her actions gave birth to the Illinois Holocaust Foundation, providing a forum for survivors. The Foundation was the reason two Holocaust museums were built in Skokie and why it is now mandatory to teach the Holocaust in Illinois public schools.

Buzz Alpert was the Midwest Director of the Jewish Defense League, espousing a more militant approach against Collin and his neo-Nazi group and decrying the position of the ACLU.

ACLU leaders from the beginning viewed the controversy as a classic First Amendment case and still stand by their unpopular position 35 years later.

“Some folks seemed to believe because we were defending their right to speak, we therefore supported what they were saying,” said David Hamlin, then director of the Illinois division of the ACLU. David Goldberger, also of the ACLU then and one of the most unpopular players during the controversy, still calls the ACLU position a “no-brainer” when he looks back at the case.

Collin himself is one of the only key figures Whitman did not seek out for a new interview. But the movie devotes some time to his background, noting that he was half Jewish and his Jewish father was a Holocaust survivor himself.

“I use the hysteria of the Jewish community in Skokie especially to propel the issue of First Amendment rights for National Socialists and for people who speak up for the white people,” he told Phil Donahue in 1978.

Whitman said it was time for a documentary on the march because of its importance and lasting legacy on so many different levels.

One of those legacies is the very venue where he spoke those words — the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. Collin’s march attempt fast-tracked the need for such an institution, Hirschhaut said, which was even reinforced on the celebratory day the museum opened April 19, 2009.

A small group of neo-Nazis, cordoned off and kept away from the festivities, spewed similar bigotry and hate that Collin’s group delivered more than 30 years earlier.

“Amidst that joy and delight at the museum’s opening,” Hirschhaut reflects, “there was a small speck — a reminder really — of the kind of hate and intolerance and anti-Semitism that first led to our very creation.” ~.

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