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New Illinois Holocaust Museum exhibit displays Nazi-looted items

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Updated: August 12, 2013 6:19AM

The stunning collection of Nazi-looted objects now on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum is not so much about things as it is about people.

Missing people. People who once owned that polished menorah or those shiny candlestick holders, but tragically remain unaccounted for after World War II.

The display, courtesy of the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) collection of Skokie’s Hebrew Theological College, is an ideal fit for the museum and its noble mission to remember those who perished and those who survived Nazi genocide.

In its own right, the collection is beautiful, but the pieces are not perfect by any means. Some are dented, others are missing attachments; and although they all sparkle under the museum’s glass showcase, this collection is a piercing reminder of lives lived and lost.

“The items are polished up, but there has never been any attempt to repair the pieces that are damaged,” said Arielle Weininger, chief curator of collections and exhibitions at the museum.

The collection includes 63 objects, said Weininger, who then pointed to two Torah Finials, which sit on top of the Torah scroll.

“They’re damaged as you can see, and that’s because all these items were looted by the Nazis, taken to warehouses and sort of thrown in there only for their interest in the metal.”

Following World War II, after a long process of sorting, the total collection included 17,000 objects of Judaica, 500,000 religious books and 1,000 Torah scrolls.

A smaller glass case that’s part of the display includes a Torah binder, called a “Wimpel” in Yiddish. It serves several purposes, including a birth announcement for a baby boy, whose name is often sewn onto the Wimpel. Edward (the English translation) is the visible name on this Wimpel.

The museum’s Wimpel also includes the original tag attached by the U.S. government when it sorted through materials in Germany after the war and a JCR tag.

“When the objects were seen in the places they were sent to after the sorting,” Weininger said, “one would always be reminded that these were survivors of the Holocaust” because of the JCR tags.

The special display may not have been seen – at least not by this many people – if the museum hadn’t made space for it.

Grace Cohen Grossman, former senior curator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, set the wheels in motion for a partnership between the Hebrew Theological College and the museum. The collection will remain on view in the light and airy exit side of the museum for at least the next five years and could be renewed for even longer.

“In bringing together these remnants of the European Jewish community, the (college and the museum) are fulfilling both of their missions,” Grossman said.

The book “Neglected Witnesses: The Fate of Jewish Ceremonial Objects during the Second World War and After” notes that there has been much attention paid to looted World War II artwork, but much less attention to the fate of Jewish ceremonial objects of the likes now on display at the museum.

Grossman, a scholar of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, has always paid attention. When she checked on different places that received the artifacts years ago, she learned the objects were not always on display and some venues didn’t even have them any longer.

“If we don’t keep telling this story and keeping these memories alive from one generation to the next,” she said, “there is always a risk of history repeating.”

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