Argentine ambassador makes historic Holocaust Museum visit
Jorge Arguello, ambassador of Argentina to the United States, looks closely at a replica model of the Lodz Ghetto of 1940 by Leon (Jacubowicz) Jacobson while touring an exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum on Oct. 8. | Michael Jarecki~For Sun-Times Me
Updated: November 12, 2012 11:09AM
SKOKIE — Like the Illinois Holocaust Museum itself, the Oct. 8 visit by the Argentine ambassador to the United States became not just about exploring the past but also about addressing the present.
Jorge Arguello toured the museum led by a delegation headed by Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut.
Arguello, along with Consul General of Argentina Marcelo Suarez Salvia and Deputy Consul General of Argentina Julia Pan, were guided through the winding corridors of the permanent gallery that accumulate into such a powerful experience for visitors.
But providing comprehensive and unforgettable documentation about horrific atrocities committed during World War II is only one piece of this museum, which has always concerned itself with reaching well beyond history.
“We want to be a very relevant, in-the-moment institution,” Hirschhaut told the distinguished guests. “Not just a history museum but really about the messaging of choice and obligation to make this world today better.”
There are serious challenges in moving toward such a lofty goal, the executive director acknowledged.
“Your visit does come at a time of great global anxiety,” Hirschhaut said at the tour’s completion. “The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is a great concern to us in the Jewish community and to all people who care about peace and the future of humanity.”
Argentina is well aware of the dangers that Iran can pose. July marked the 18th anniversary of the lethal attack against the Jewish community center AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) in Buenos Aires, which was ruled to have originated in Iran. Eighty-five people were killed and hundreds more injured, the second attack against Jewish and Israeli targets on Argentinian soil within only a couple of years.
Hirschhaut on Oct. 8 underscored the importance of bringing the perpetrators to justice, a pursuit Argentina has taken up with great seriousness, Arguello assured.
“Every year, I’ve heard the same strong demand from our president asking Iran to release their officials (behind the attack),” the ambassador said. “They must be prosecuted.”
Before his current position Arguello spent five years in New York as Argentine ambassador to the United Nations and before that chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Argentinian Congress.
“Year after year after year we’ve been trying to find some answer from the Iranian government and we have not been able to,” he said.
But the effort continues. Arguello helped secure an international warrant against the perpetrators of the barbarous act, but so far the case remains unresolved. He said he is “not very optimistic” but “we have to try.”
“We hope these criminals will be brought into a trial,” Arguello said.
No matter where he is in the world, Arguello always asks to visit a Holocaust museum to meet the Jewish community, he said.
This Holocaust museum, though, is not quite like any other, Arguello learned along the tour.
He was told about how Holocaust survivors originally came to Skokie to rebuild a larger network that they lost during the horrors of World War II.
When a neo-Nazi group threatened to march in Skokie in the mid-’70s, Holocaust survivors were galvanized and became a forceful voice for standing up to hate. The world paid attention.
“Out of that experience became the transforming moment in America in how we learn and study the Holocaust,” Hirschhaut told the ambassador.
Arguello and Holocaust survivor Sam Harris, a member of the museum’s Board of Directors and president emeritus of the museum, lit a ceremonial candle in the Room of Remembrance, the quiet and solemn memorial space on the museum’s second floor. That was followed by a private lunch in the Pritzker Hall of Reflection, which included Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen.
Even before the museum opened in 2009, it had gained serious attention from dignitaries throughout the world.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was there before the museum was ready for the public.
Former President Bill Clinton and Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel spoke and toured the facility on opening day. Rwandan humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina took a tour on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
The museum has had a healthy share of “firsts” in its three-year run, too. Croatian President Ivo Josipovic visited the museum last year, the first head of state to do so. And now Arguello became the first ambassador to the United States to feel the strong impact of this sacred space in Skokie.