“The idea that I’m safe here, that nobody was going to try to kill me was totally shattered,” says Aaron Elster, a survivor who then lived in Skokie. “Suddenly there was a threat of physical extinction.” The survivors were beside themselves with horror, grief, anger and fear. “My husband said, ‘What are you afraid of? You are in America,’” recalls Magda Brown, a survivor who lives in Skokie. “But I couldn’t shake that fear.”
Nor could my parents. My father could barely contain himself. He phoned relatives to deliver in a nearly hysterical tone the terrible news of the Nazis’ return. He paced our small living-dining room, his complexion ashen with anger and disbelief.
At age 21, I did not grasp the significance of this disaster. Though I could see that my parents, uncles and aunts were distraught, I was dumbfounded that they would take Collin and his little band of pathetic, would-be Nazis seriously. Clearly Collin was a media creation, I thought, capable of harming no one but himself. I tried to convey this belief to my father, but it was futile: To survivors like him, there was no distinction between Collin’s minions and Hitler’s. Hadn’t Hitler, after all, been regarded as something of a joke until he ascended to the chancellorship of Germany in 1933?
The threats galvanized the survivors, who overcame their reluctance to reveal their pasts. They protested publicly, granted interviews to TV stations and newspapers and otherwise railed loudly against Collin and the neo-Nazis. Survivor Sol Goldstein emerged as one of the leading voices battling Collin, winning over Skokie village counsel Harvey Schwartz, an American-born Jew, in the process. Though Schwartz at first believed the Nazis had a First Amendment right to march, after witnessing the survivors’ agony over Collin’s threatened arrival he came to believe that the march must be stopped.
Some rabbis and others suggested that Jews stay in their homes and pull down their shades, but the survivors would not be silenced. In the process, they came to learn—which surprised them—that their non-Jewish neighbors, including Skokie’s churches, backed them in their battle against the Nazis.
When Collin announced that he and his followers would march in Skokie on April 30, 1977, the survivors massed at Village Hall, some bearing weapons. But Collin was blocked from appearing by a court injunction. The legal jousting between Collin and the Village of Skokie kept the story on television screens and newspaper front pages through 1977 and 1978, prolonging the torment for the survivors.
The irony of Collin as the rabid anti-Semite whose father had survived the Holocaust, a fact reported at the time, was nearly matched by another paradox: Collin was represented by David Goldberger, the Jewish legal director of the Illinois ACLU, with the full backing of another Jew, ACLU’s executive director Aryeh Neier, who as a child fled Nazi Germany. In spite of being denounced by some, including many in the Jewish community, as neo-Nazi dupes or even sympathizers, the two men never deviated from the ACLU’s position that defending freedom of speech, no matter how hateful or threatening, was necessary for the protection of democracy.
In 1978, Collin won his First Amendment right to march in Skokie, but he never dared to. He realized, perhaps, that the survivors were prepared to meet him with pipes and baseball bats, and that the Skokie police might look the other way. Collin would soon run afoul of the law again for a wholly different reason. In 1980, he was convicted on eight counts of taking indecent liberties with minors. Collin eventually abandoned Nazism to pursue other fantasies and has since avoided the public eye.
For all the agonies that this strange, angry man inflicted on the survivors, his actions, in fact, transformed them. By organizing to defeat him, they stepped fully into public view for the first time. They spent the next several decades championing human rights and tolerance in Skokie. In 1982 they opened a small storefront Holocaust museum a few blocks from my parents’ home in a former dental office, next door to a tavern. A few years later, in 1987, they erected a Holocaust memorial—a Jewish freedom fighter guarding a family that includes a grandfather, a mother and child—on a sliver of land between Skokie Village Hall and the Skokie Public Library. And through lobbying, they succeeded in making Illinois, in 1990, the first state in the nation to require Holocaust education.