For the past 27 years, a lovely tree-lined and brick-paved path in Evanston’s Ingraham Park adjacent to the Morton Civic Center has been an unintentionally best-kept secret.
Flowering trees, stone markers and benches wind along the southwest side of the building, and two entry plaques on large stones say “Avenue of the Righteous.” The site is a special, quiet and beautiful sanctuary honoring Christians who helped Jews during the Holocaust.
The Avenue of the Righteous, the product of a large interfaith effort on the North Shore – and one of only a few such places of its kind in the world – will this year have a 27th anniversary and rededication. On June 1, a ceremony on the site will include planting another tree and adding the names of two more Righteous Gentiles to the garden, which currently has 26 trees and honors 38 specific people plus hundreds of heroic, unnamed citizens of France and Denmark.
The Avenue of the Righteous in Evanston was modeled after the original at Yad Vashem, the iconic living memorial and Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Israel. The non-Jews who risked their own lives to rescue Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust are known as “the Righteous,” for the most part ordinary men and women who hid people, acquired and supplied identification documents, and “adopted” Jewish children to keep them safe from the brutality and death perpetuated by the Nazis.
In the mid 1980s, three North Shore residents with vision were catalysts for the Righteous project: Rabbi Harold Kudan from Temple Am Shalom in Glencoe, Reverend David Tracy from North Shore United Methodist Church in Glencoe and Ruth Goldboss, a community activist interested in interfaith dialogue and social justice. Over several years they reached out to churches, synagogues, interfaith organizations and schools – to more than 60 area institutions– with their own motivating question: When will we at last honor the moral heroes whose altruism is a powerful model for how we can all make a real difference in the world?
A robust interfaith committee was formed, plans were drawn up and the search for a site began. Former Evanston Alderman Robert Romaine was a key supporter of the proposal to build the commemorative avenue in Evanston. He brought the proposal to the Evanston Human Services Committee and then the City Council, where it was unanimously accepted.
On Sept. 20, 1987, the Avenue of the Righteous was dedicated in Ingraham Park to particularly honor righteous non-Jews with a tie to the Midwest or Canada. Former Mayor Lorraine Morton, then 5th Ward alderman, had the honor of planting the first commemorative tree on the avenue and has continued to be an enthusiastic supporter of the project.
“I can’t really say enough about the project and the ideas behind it,” Ms. Morton said. She said she continues to think the stories behind the Righteous Christians are something everyone should learn about. “What they were doing is monumental to me – saving the lives of others by putting their own at risk.”
One of the major stakeholders in the Avenue of the Righteous project was, and still is, former teacher Chuck Meyers, who has served as president of the Avenue of the Righteous Committee for six years and has been involved since the 1980s. He has spearheaded both the upgrading of the physical site and the addition of new honorees.
“Time and weather took a toll on our plot of land. Several stones were cracked and had to be replaced,” said Mr. Meyers. “But we are so fortunate that the City of Evanston, for the past 27 years, has supported this project. The City doesn’t provide us funds, but the Parks and Recreation Department maintains the property, cuts the grass and plants all of the trees for us.”
The gently sloping plot of land totals about 200 square feet, is shaded by pine and flowering fruit trees and is appointed with four sturdy benches. As with each dedication, on this June 1, another tree will be planted, a stone bearing the names of the honorees placed by it; presentations and a reception will follow.
This year’s honorees will be the late Father Raymond Vancourt and his cousin, Raymonde Lombard who, in their village of Lille in northern France, sheltered a young German Jew named Irene Kahn. Irene Kahn arrived in Lille from Germany in 1933 after the Nazis came to power, but came to learn that her name was on a deportation list. Knowing she needed shelter, a sympathetic person took her to the priest’s home where she, and later other members of her family, lived and were treated like family. She was encouraged to celebrate the Jewish holidays in Father Vancourt’s home, performed helpful tasks in the home and never had to hide in a cellar or attic.
In 1944 when France was liberated, Irene Kahn left her protectors’ home and eventually moved to the United States where she married and became Irene Poll – and also became a member of the North Shore Avenue of the Righteous Committee. Few people knew the details of her rescue, but several years after her death, the committee members felt it was time to tell her story and recognize her rescuers.
“Humanity would have gone to the dogs,” Irene Poll (photo in AroundTown)once said, “had there not been people like Father Raymond.”
When Father Raymond Vancourt was honored by Yad Vashem more than 35 years ago, he said: “I repeat in all sincerity and from the depth of my heart – the honor we received from you today, and by which we are touched, only reflects in our view the very great honor imparted to us when we were called upon to restore a measure of security and happiness to brethren crushed by tragedy.” Father Vancourt and Raymonde Lombard, both of whom are deceased, are two of the more than 13,000 non-Jewish men and women who have been honored at Yad Vashem.
The members of the Avenue of the Righteous Committee and the City of Evanston invite the public to the Rededication and 27th Honoring Ceremony in the garden (rain location will be inside the Morton Civic Center) from 3 to 5 p.m. on June 1.
Some of the highlights of the event will include remarks by Chuck Meyers and by Irene Poll’s daughter, Faye Schultz. Regrettably, the Avenue site does not have signage or materials that tell the remarkable stories of the heroes, but people are encouraged to check the website (www.avenueoftherighteous-illinois.org ) for information – and inspiration. Questions, donations, or interest in joining the Avenue of the Righteous Committee can be directed to 847-835-4800, and inquiries will be forwarded to Chuck Meyers.