Other than the founding Holocaust survivors, no one has been the face of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center since its inception more than Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut.
But Hirschhaut, 53, announced last week he will retire in late January 2014 after 10 years with the institution.
The museum opened in 2009, but Hirschhaut was brought on board long before. His career with the Illinois Holocaust Museum can really be divided into halves – his first five years before the museum was built, and his last five as the museum found its way.
“I feel like I achieved everything I set out to do with this institution,” he said about retiring. “First, to get it created and now for it to be established as a serious, internationally-recognized, highly-regarded, prominent institution.”
Hand-chosen by the survivors themselves, Hirschhaut has been instrumental in developing and executing the museum’s vision. The museum has become renowned both nationally and internationally for being as much a learning center as it is a museum, as much about the future as it is about the past.
Hirschhaut, a Deerfield resident, served more than 20 years with the Anti-Defamation League, most recently as director at its flagship Greater Chicago/Upper Midwest region, before accepting the executive director job.
First approached by Holocaust survivor and then-Museum Board President Sam Harris, Museum Board Chairman J.B. Pritzker and others, he wasn’t sold on the idea at first, he admits.
“This was from its very inception an entrepreneurial venture,” Hirschhaut said. “This was a very aspirational project and a dream certainly for the survivors and all those they had enlisted. But it was not a guaranteed certainty that this would happen. For me, it took some time to make this educated leap of faith.”
But leap he did, in part because from the start he was invited to play such a key role in creating the museum’s vision. He began to see the same possibilities as the survivors and supporters.
“It took several months for me finally to wrap my head comfortably enough around the idea,” he said. “I think what ultimately caused me to make that leap was that I began to see what the institution could be.”
Howard Swibel, a lawyer and a key leader in the museum’s development, worked with him over 10 years when Hirschhaut was at the Anti-Defamation League. As an early recruiter at the museum, Swibel initially didn’t think Hirschhaut would be interested. When his name was first raised by a recruitment firm though, Swibel knew he would be ideal.
Hirschhaut had proved he had a personal commitment to Holocaust education at the Anti-Defamation League, where he managed a staff and was a strong advocate for what the founders wanted to accomplish, Swibel said. He had even set in gear a youth program for Holocaust learning.
“I thought this guy would help put us on the map,” Swibel said.
The original concept for the museum didn’t include a youth exhibition, and the idea of an art gallery portraying many different genocides was never a certainty. There were some, Swibel said, who thought juxtaposing the Holocaust with other genocides would dilute the importance of the former, but Hirschhaut understood the importance of highlighting commonalities between different atrocities.
The seeds for this museum, though, began before Hirschhaut was hired.
The Illinois Holocaust Museum Foundation was created after the neo-Nazis tried to march in Skokie in the mid-70s. It operated from a storefront on Main Street in Skokie for years until survivors pushed for a larger permanent home.
Only the third person hired for the new Illinois Holocaust Museum, Hirschhaut led a $50 million initiative to create the museum.
Since the museum opened to the public, he’s been an articulate and eloquent voice, connecting people in the name of the museum’s lofty and ambitious mission.
Hirschhaut spoke alongside former President Bill Clinton and Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel at the museum’s grand opening in April 2009; he has movingly honored those deemed “righteous” in ceremonies at the museum’s Fountain of the Righteous during Kristallnacht commemorations and at other times; he has helped lead tours of the museum for everyone from the mayor of Chicago to the sitting head of state of Croatia and much more.
Each major event at the museum – and there have been countless since the institution launched – has seemingly been introduced with a poignant oration by the executive director.
“We are grateful that Rick accepted our challenge 10 years ago to lead this world-class institution not only for our survivors, but for the Chicago area and the Midwestern United States,” said J.B. Pritzker. “Even after his departure, he will remain a part of our museum family for years to come as we begin our next chapter.”
Museum President and Holocaust survivor Fritzie Fritzshall, speaking on behalf of her fellow survivors, thanked Hirschhaut for “making our dreams come true.”
“Because of your work and the building of this museum, we carry a sense of comfort and peace of mind knowing that our stories will forever be enshrined in this magnificent house of learning.”
Swibel serves on the executive committee of the museum’s board of directors and on a group that will oversee the hiring of the next executive director. He said that the next director will have different responsibilities now that the museum is more settled.
“We wanted this museum to be a living institution, integrated and relevant to the community and not just a history lesson,” Swibel said. Hirschhaut helped create such a museum, while the next executive director will try to make the museum accessible to even more people, he said.
Although the museum will launch a national search, it hasn’t been decided whether the next executive director will come from this area or a longer distance, Swibel said.
As for Hirschhaut, who has a wife and two children, he has not yet determined his next professional chapter in life, but he would possibly like to work on the national stage, he said.
He credits a great staff of 34 full-time employees and hundreds of volunteers for helping to make the museum what it is today.
“I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be part of creating and establishing this remarkable institution,” he said. “It is a fitting gift and legacy for the survivors. It is an extraordinary memorial to those who were lost. It is an inspiring beacon of hope and empowerment to a generation of young people today and to generations to come.”