The little girl is only 8, and so she does not yet read newspapers or watch or listen to the local news. But she knew of the death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton — some of the older kids she knows had been talking about it. So last Sunday, some hours before the Super Bowl, she said, "Bullies should not ever have guns," and that was the reason that she and I drove to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in
The parking lot was surprisingly jammed. We would later learn that the reason was the official opening of an exhibition called "Courage: The Vision to End Segregation, the Guts to Fight for It," which tells the story of Rev. Joseph DeLaine, who fought to end segregation in Clarendon County, S.C., schools, a battle that took personal tolls but also helped lead to the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Make no mistake, that exhibit and the main exhibition space of the building are not intended for little kids. I know many adults, myself included, who have been moved to tears and heartbreak by the terrors detailed by
But on the lower level of the building is the Miller Family Youth Exhibition, and for an hour the girl and I had the area to ourselves. It was there that we — she much more proficiently than I — assembled a giant three-dimensional puzzle detailing problems and solutions in a school cafeteria.
It was there in a small, theaterlike room that we played a virtual reality game — she much, much more proficiently than I — that involved bullying frogs.
It was there that we traced words onto paper — hers' "LOVE," mine "HOPE" — and then tacked them to a wall containing hundreds of other traced messages.
"This was always part of the planning for the museum," says Rick Hirschhaut, its executive director. "We understood that the primary exhibition was not suitable for children under 12, but we thought it important for younger children to begin learning lessons of human behavior, to learn about taking individual responsibilities."
The museum consulted with a couple of experts: Esther Netter, executive director of the Zimmer Children's Museum in Los Angeles, and Vincent Beggs, a former executive director of the Los Angeles Children's Museum. They helped conceptualize the space. The money came from the Harvey L. Miller Family Foundation, one of the area's most thoughtfully philanthropic groups.
The exhibit opened when the museum did in 2009, a rain-soaked April Sunday that featured an impassioned speech by former President
Hirschhaut explained that over the ensuing years the space has been "tweaked" and "enhanced."
One of the newer additions is a row of colorful lockers, which the little girl and I found the most powerfully compelling and inventively interactive area of the space. Each told a story.
"I know about her," said the little girl, opening the Rosa Parks locker.
She did not know about Miep Gies, one of the people who helped hide Ann Frank from the
Then it was on to some videos screens upon which we watched kids tell unscripted stories. We listened to a few of them before the 8-year-old told hers.
"These are all from children who have visited and spoken on camera, prompted by various questions on the screen," Hirschhaut says. "And there are hundreds of them to watch, all of them touching in different ways, all of them encouraging."
There are other video screens devoted to stories from Holocaust survivors, and, as we watched and listened to Sam Harris tell his tale, embellished by archival footage, the little girl said, "He looks like a such a nice man." Because I had met Harris a couple of years ago and knew him some, I said that, yes, he was a nice man, and told her he was among those most responsible for the birth of this remarkable museum.
The museum hosts many school field trips (ilholocaustmuseum.org). These often end with the kids listening to a Holocaust survivor telling his/her story.
"They never get into the graphic details," Hirschhaut says. "It is sort of like listening to grandparents talking to their grandchildren. Basically, the stories are, 'I had a happy childhood, and then the world changed, and it was terrible and difficult.'"
Eventually, there will be no survivors to tell their personal stories. But there will always, sadly, be conflict in this world, horrors, tragic death. In a few years the little 8-year-old who is my daughter will be old enough to experience the permanent exhibit upstairs, to learn harder lessons. In the meantime she must live in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad.
Because of her visit to the Miller Family Youth Exhibition on a Super Bowl Sunday ("The essence of our message there is, don't be a bystander, don't be a bully," Hirschhaut says. "Make a difference."), she will be better able to deal with that madness. And, as I have known all along but am now more sure of than ever, she will never be a bystander or a bully.