The vandal who desecrated Jewish graves in Waukegan with swastikas remained unidentified and at large on Tuesday, but the latest display of antisemitism sparked a wide range of emotions, from anger to tears to outrage — even sympathy for the hateful culprit.
“He’s got to be in a lot of pain. I feel sorry for him, or them, for having this much hate in their heart,” Alan Friedlander said after checking on his parents’ headstones at the Congregation Am Echod Jewish Cemetery, 3050 Grand Ave. in the north suburb.
Friedlander’s parents’ graves had not been disturbed, but at least 39 others were found desecrated with red paint about 8 a.m. Monday, according to Waukegan police.
Sixteen had been defaced with the Nazi symbol, and another 23 were covered in other graffiti, police said.
One of the desecrated graves belonged to Morris and Dorothy Yellen. Their son, Larry Yellen, said seeing the swastika on his parents’ headstone was extremely upsetting for the family, bringing some to tears.
It was especially painful for Yellen because his father fought to rid the world of those hateful ideas during WWII and lost relatives in the Holocaust.
“My father was a bombardier in World War II in a B-17,” Yellen said, “He fought for the United States in World War II, lost numerous relatives in the Holocaust, and now that he’s passed away he finds a swastika painted on his headstone; nothing could be more disturbing than that.”
Yellen, a retired longtime investigative reporter and legal analyst for FOX-32 Chicago, said he got into the business partly because of his mother, who was known as a caring woman.
“So you’ve got a truly American family, a religious family, Jews who believed in the freedoms that the United States supposedly guarantees and protects, and you find swastikas from neo-Nazis on their headstones, very shocking,” Yellen said.
Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor denounced the “hateful imagery.”
“Hate does not have a home in Waukegan; when such incidents occur, our marginalized neighbors are victimized, and our entire community suffers,” Taylor said in a statement.
City crews were sent out to power-wash the defaced stones. No arrests had been made as of Tuesday evening.
A source close to the cemetery told the Sun-Times that surveillance cameras were being installed in the wake of the vandalism, but none were in place when it occurred over the weekend.
“The Waukegan Police Department is committed to finding those responsible for this hateful act of vandalism,” a department spokesman said in an email. “Due to the sensitive nature of this case and out of respect for the victims’ families, our primary focus is moving the investigation forward.”
Friedlander, who grew up as a member of the congregation, said he recognized the family names on some of the headstones that had been desecrated.
“The point that struck me was that if they knew the person who did this, they would have tried to help them,” he said. “There’s a lot of anger, a little bit of worry, but mostly feeling sorry for how dark that person’s heart has to be to do that.”
Images from FOX-32 Chicago showed at least one headstone tagged with the phrase “Kanye was rite,” apparently a misspelled reference to antisemitic remarks made by the Chicago-born rapper last month.
“You read things like what Kanye said, and some people wonder if it affects anything — this is how it materializes, people taking action on what they talked about,” Friedlander said.
The Anti-Defamation League reported an all-time high of 53 antisemitic incidents reported in Illinois last year, a 15% increase from 2020 and more than four times the total reported in 2016.
It’s part of a troubling nationwide trend, according to David Goldenberg, the ADL’s Midwest regional director, who called for the Waukegan vandalism to be investigated as a hate crime.
“It takes a whole society to address rising antisemitism and hate crimes,” Goldenberg said. “Those who have platforms need to use them to speak out against hate, not spread it. But you don’t have to be a celebrity — these are conversations you can have around the dinner table.”
Gov. JB Pritzker condemned it as an “evil act” and said the Illinois State Police were helping out “in the pursuit of justice.”
U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider said he was “shocked and appalled” by the vandalism in his north suburban 10th Congressional District.
“This act of hate is despicable,” Schneider tweeted. “Antisemitism must neither be normalized nor accepted. An attack on any community is an attack on all of us, as it diminishes and threatens each of us.”
Leaders at the Illinois Holocaust Museum said, “Now more than ever, we must act to combat the rising tide of antisemitism in our country and around the world.”
Friedlander said he hopes the vandal or vandals are brought to justice soon, and when they are, “the first thing I’d like to do is have him come over for Shabbat dinner, and just talk to him and let him know that we’re good people with love in our hearts.
“Hate can be changed. We can win over hearts and minds, like we’ve done since the Holocaust,” Friedlander said.
Congregation leaders declined to comment but expressed “heartfelt thanks to our community for the outpouring of donation offers” following the vandalism.
Police are asking anyone with information to submit tips at (847) 360-9001.
Donations to Congregation Am Echod can be sent to P.O.Box 561, Highland Park, IL 60035.