Chicagoan Who’ll Be Honored by US Holocaust Memorial Museum Warns of Rising Hatred: ‘It Has Become Normal to Hear It'
Joe Gutman, the son of Holocaust survivors, grew up in Rogers Park with his parents but his extended family stretched through the community, a patchwork collection of other Jewish refugees who found each other in Chicago.
By coming together here, they formed something new: a family bound by loss not blood, unified by a commitment to live good lives and help others do the same.
“They joined a community of survivors that were my family, basically, as far as I knew it,” said Gutman, 64. “All these people got involved with various philanthropic activities. People formed groups here, got involved with educational groups. To a person, every one of them cherished the opportunity to be alive, period. And they realized it wasn’t just about going out and being successful. Life was about finding a way to make the world better.”
On Thursday, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will hold its flagship fundraising event and will honor Gutman, his wife Sheila and their four adult children for their work supporting the museum and honoring survivors of the Holocaust. The event is normally a 2,500-person luncheon held in Chicago, but will be virtual again this year due to the pandemic.
If you’ve never visited the museum in Washington, D.C., you should. It’s one of the most gut-wrenching and important experiences you can have, a powerful reminder of the importance — the vital importance — of recognizing what the museum calls “the dangers of unchecked hatred.”
Gutman and his family now live in the Chicago suburbs, but growing up, he recalls family friends who were like cousins and grandparents to him.
“On holidays — Memorial Day, Labor Day, July Fourth — these families would get together,” Gutman said. “We were all family. We lived in this small neighborhood in Roger’s Park, and we just became one big community.”
Over time, he learned the horror so many members of this sprawling family had survived: “You saw all these people and, as you grew older, you heard their stories. One lived in an oven for two years. One was a child and snuck into a cemetery as a 2-year-old. His father was a doctor and they simulated his death with a drug that slows the heart rate down to almost zero, snuck him into a cemetery in a baby coffin … when they knew the guards were changing. They bribed the guards and they broke out the back side of the cemetery because it was outside the ghetto.”
Gutman continued: “Those are the kind of stories you grow up with and you realize pretty quickly, here I am 16 years old and deciding whether I’m going to go to ride my bike to school or take the bus, and thinking about what these folks were doing when they were 16. You just say to yourself, ‘What would I have done?’ You start to grow up and think to yourself, ‘Could this ever happen again and what would I do if it did? And what can I do now?’”
Those questions weigh heavy today on Gutman and many in this country as we watch escalating antisemitism and out-in-the-open hatred along with dehumanizing anti-immigrant rhetoric and regressive attacks on voting rights.