Remembering Skokie


A Commentary & Review of SURVIVING SKOKIE
By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Volunteer Director

A Film by Eli Adler and Blair
Documentary  - Non-Rated - 66 min. 
This film was Mountain Shadow’s selection for November, 2015

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
                            Adaptation of a verse from Dante’s Inferno*

When my two daughters were nine and thirteen, their father took them on a journey to Washington, D.C. We visited the Smithsonian, where I showed them John Glenn’s Friendship Seven space capsule. I told them about the launch of the race to the moon in the sixties, when I was about their age. I wanted them to know something of the pursuit of things yet unknown; but also to appreciate the perspective outer space provided looking back at the swirling blue-green planet we all share.

I then took them to see the Vietnam Memorial. We strolled the length of the black granite wall; though we didn’t personally know a single one of the over 53,000 names of the dead, etched there in remembrance.  As we walked along, I told them about my part in the protest movement in that same era; against the American war in Southeast Asia, that I personally considered sheer, tragic folly.

Next, I took them to the Lincoln Memorial. With that giant, seated statue at our backs, we stood on the steps where King gave his dream speech, and tried to imagine that hot August day in 1963.

And finally, I took them to the Holocaust Memorial Museum that adjoins the National Mall. It was surely the most sobering part of the trip. Afterwards, nine-year old Emily turned to me and said, “Papa, why did you show us this?  This all happened before you were born. And besides, we’re not even Jewish?”

“Because,” I replied, “I remember Skokie in the sixties ...”

I recalled this personal story of my own after attending Eli Adler and Blair Gershkow’s premiere of their documentary at the Mill Valley Film Festival last month.  Surviving Skokie is the best kind of documentary. It’s historical and informative, to be sure. In addition, it tells a story that is inspirational; and, to my way of thinking, even redemptive. But it’s also personal, even autobiographical. And therein lies the kind of archetypal father-child journey that is authentically poignant and persuasive.

Everyone knows something of the Holocaust. It is the emblematic story of the kind of devastation, death and destruction which human beings seem all too capable of inflicting upon one another in every age and generation.  Whenever and wherever the spark is ignited once again, it requires the best in us to confront and denounce the worst in us. 

I’m aware there are members of our own film society for whom this film touches closer to stories of their own; stories that are far more personal and biographical than mine.  I am appreciative of them.  And, I am appreciative of these fine filmmaker’s willingness to present their work in person with us. 

* Footnote: The quote that begins this review is an adaptation from a verse in Dante’s Inferno (1265-1321 CE). The paraphrase is attributed to – among others -- President John F. Kennedy, in several of his speeches, including one to a meeting of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1956); and also “’Remarks on the establishment of a West German Peace Corps, Bonn, West Germany” (1963).