SKOKIE — By the time the neo-Nazis tried to march in downtown Skokie almost 40 years ago, Holocaust survivor Jack Adler and his family lived nowhere close to the town they had called home for years.
But they might as well have been there, said his son, Eli, because that explosive news story, which galvanized a large group of Skokie Holocaust survivors, did the same for Jack Adler.
Eli Adler never forgot his years growing up in Skokie nor his father’s transformation after that seminal event (the March); he is now completing “Surviving Skokie,” a documentary telling several intermingled and resonant stories.
Adler calls his film “intensely personal” in covering what occurred in Skokie in the 1970s and its aftermath, his family’s horrific Holocaust experiences, and the journey shared by father and son.
“I remember my dad as a pretty cool guy,” says Eli in the trailer to his film. “Our family life seemed normal to me — birthday parties, barbecues and bicycles down Dempster Street. It seemed to be the perfect childhood.”
Little did he know that “something crazy was about to happen,” something no one could see coming. Neo-Nazi Frank Collin’s efforts to provoke the many Holocaust survivors who lived in Skokie had an unforeseen impact on so many of them.
“Surviving Skokie” is 90 percent completed, reports Adler who is looking to raise $20,000 to finish off the work. It’s a labor of love. He has scheduled a fundraiser from 3 to 5 p.m. May 18 in the student commons at Niles North High School.
Survivors drawn to Skokie
Jack Adler was one of 7,000 Holocaust survivors who moved to Skokie with his family following World War II. Many had lost family members in Europe, some their entire families.
“They didn’t often speak of their experiences,” says Rick Hirschhaut, the first executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. “If they did in the home, it was usually in hushed tones or in a different language.”
That was certainly true of Jack Adler.
“I wanted to forget it rather than relive it,” Jack Adler says in “Surviving Skokie.” “And I think that’s what psychologically it was all about.”
Even from just the extended trailer, which can be viewed on the Internet, “Surviving Skokie” feels well made and emotionally powerful, nuanced in covering layers of the past catching up with the present.
That’s not surprising considering Eli Adler is an Emmy-Award-winning cinematographer, who has worked on multiple documentaries.
“I knew in the back of my mind that at some point I would find my own story to tell,” Adler said.
It was the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie that inspired him to take on the project. By late 2009, only a few months after reading a news story about the new museum, Adler was launching his project.
“Surviving Skokie” documents Eli Adler’s father confronting his own past while it also delves into Adler reconnecting with his father and with Skokie.
Eli Adler accompanies his father for an emotional journey back to Pabianice, the small Polish town from where his father came, and we can see the deep and quiet sadness wash over his father’s face.
Jack Adler lost close family members and survived unimaginable treatment in death camps. In 1945, he was 16, weighed 65 pounds and could barely stand when the war was over. This return trip to Poland by father and son captures a profoundly quiet solemnity.
“That (trip) gave me a stronger connection to him and my past — seeing where he grew up and where I may have grown up if it weren’t for Hitler,” Eli Adler said.
Father and son also returned to Skokie together and toured their old home on Harding Avenue for the first time in years. Eli Adler had moved away from Skokie when he was only 13. His new home was in neighboring Wilmette, but once he left for college, his physical connection to the area was over.
But not his spiritual connection.
“Growing up in Skokie — it stays with you,” Eli Adler said. “It’s part of who you are. It’s part of your DNA in a way.”
The film moves back and forth in time, capturing the micro and the macro of a ghastly chapter in history, memories of which are reignited because of the planned Skokie march.
Along with Eli Adler’s personal account of how these events affected his family, the film includes interviews with Holocaust survivors such as Fritzie Fritzshall and Aaron Elster, Skokie’s former corporation counsel, Harvey Schwartz, who tried to keep the neo-Nazis out of Skokie, Rabbi Neil Brief, Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen and journalist, author and filmmaker Howard Reich among others.
There was a key commonality about how the Nazis’ planned march touched survivors. Many who had been quiet, no longer wanted to stay that way.
That was true for those living in Skokie at the time, but it was also true for Jack Adler who had moved away more than 10 years earlier.
“It gave him either the courage or the mandate to share his story,” Eli Adler said about his father, now 85. “He’s now spoken to over a million kids since he started talking and continues to do so to this very day.”
Since 1980, Jack Adler has shared his Holocaust experiences all over Denver where he lives and beyond; he has written a book, which also asks larger questions about the Holocaust.
“Why can people be so mean to innocent men, women and children?” the older Adler asks in the film. “Why? It’s still difficult to comprehend.”
Fund-raiser at Niles North
Those who attend next week’s fundraiser will meet the Adlers, enjoy some entertainment, see clips from the film and learn more about the project.
If Adler raises another $20,000, it will be matched by an angel donor, he said. The $40,000 should be enough to complete the project, which has a budget of about $150,000.
Adler has not paid himself a salary, which is one reason the film has taken so long to complete. He’s had to work other projects while filming his pet project whenever he can.
WTTW in Chicago has already committed to airing the film based on the trailer alone, he said.
Adler said he wanted to raise his final dollars in Skokie because in many ways, this is the location of the heart of the film.
“Through this inexplicable twist of fate in Skokie,” he narrates in ‘“Surviving Skokie,” “I had discovered my father’s past.”