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Illinois Museum Teaches Police Recruits About Holocaust

The Anti-Defamation League, in partnership with the newly opened Illinois Holocaust Museum near Chicago, sponsored its first "Law Enforcement and Democracy Initiative." The two-day program teaches Chicago area police recruits the history of the Holocaust, examines the role of police in Nazi Europe, and helps recruits to understand hate crimes.

It was almost 70 years ago. But Aaron Elster remembers when the Germans invaded Poland and occupied Sokolow, his home town. "One of the first things I remember as a 6 or seven year old is burning the synagogues. Grabbing old people with beards and shearing their beards off and taking pictures of them to humiliate them. The chief rabbi was stabbed in the marketplace," he recalls.

Elster and his family lived in the Sokolow Ghetto until 1942, when the Nazis began mass executions. "The first thing that the Einzatsgruppen, or this enforcement group did, was kill. Their job was to kill Communists, government officials, priests and Jewish men," he says, "And then the killings were enlarged. They started killing men, women, and children. They chased them out to ravines and a dozen soldiers would line up and shoot them."

Elster's parents and his sister Sara died in the Holocaust. After the war, Elster came to the United States.

The horrors he witnessed are detailed in the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois.

For dozens of Chicago area police recruits, the museum is also a classroom. In a two-day program called the "Law Enforcement and Democracy Initiative," the museum is teaching future police officers to understand hate crimes.

Shikema Teague recently joined the Chicago Police Department and is taking part in the museum program.

She says her visit to the museum has been an eye opening experience. "Its kind of saddening and disheartening cause there's a lot that I am learning right now that I didn't know about the Holocaust," she said.

Museum Director Richard Hirschhaut says the initiative is teaching recruits that innocent people need protection. "We want them to understand that these millions of innocents had no where to turn," he says, "That the protections of a democratic society were no longer available to them. That the role of police as protector and guardian of safety collapsed."

The recruits are also learning about recent cases where police failed to protect citizens.

"It happened in the 30s and the 40s, but then you have to think, it also just recently happened in the 90s as far as Rwanda and overseas with Saddam Hussein with the whole killing of people, and I think it's possible it probably could happen again. In the United States, I doubt it, but in other countries I think it can," Teague said.

Aaron Elster now serves on the museum board and gives lectures during the two-day program.

He hopes that people never experience another Holocaust. He says recruits like Teague have a role to play.

"Hopefully, we train them in some humanity. We train them to say, 'Hey we are all human beings.' And you must make choices. And in your work and your daily activities hopefully you will always make the right choice," Elster said.

The recruits are also learning about protecting the museum.

The June attack on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, and the death of security officer Stephen Johns, are an indication that Anti-Semitism still exists, more than 60 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany.