Remembering Fritzie Fritzshall

Mon, 06/21/2021 - 4:03pm

USC Shoah Foundation mourns the passing of Fritzie Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, whose story of survival and will to share it has inspired thousands of people. She was 91.

Always hopeful and optimistic, Fritzie’s understanding of where hate and intolerance can lead if left unchecked has driven her her whole life to educate and empower everyone she meets. She will be dearly missed.

Born in 1929 in Klucarky, Czechoslovakia, Fritzie’s early years were very peaceful, surrounded by friends and neighbors who were both Jewish and Christian. But when Nazi Germany started to gain power and German Jews started to be sent to Poland, they would sometimes end up in her village, looking for Jewish homes marked by a mezuzah on the door, and beg for food. Her family would help but grew scared and cautious.

Eventually, Nazis came to her hometown and stripped her of her ability to go to school, forced her to wear a yellow star sewn on her clothes. They took her family’s possessions and those of her Jewish neighbors.

On the last day of Passover in 1944, Fritzie’s family - excluding her father, who’d immigrated to the United States and had been trying to bring them there too - was relocated to a ghetto that had previously been a school. Now, though, instead of being a place for learning and enlightenment, it had a fence, guarded by Nazi soldiers and dogs.

A short while later, the family was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Fritzie was 13.

Recalling the journey in an interview in 1990, Fritzie said the ride to the concentration camp was in a cattle car: “No windows, had no seats and no toilet. When we got onto the train, none of us knew we were being taken to a concentration camp [but then] we heard the lock go on from the outside. I believe that was the first we knew, wherever we were going to be taken to, it was not going to be freedom.”

When the family arrived at the camp, Jewish prisoners told Fritzie to pretend to be 15, because anyone too young or too old would be taken immediately the gas chambers. That was where Fritzie was separated from her two brothers and her mother.

Fritzie’s strength was what got her through her time at Auschwitz. In an interview with the United States Holocaust History Museum, she explained how youth and strength were assets at the camp, but not necessarily your route to survival: “We needed to show we still had strength left...whether it was to work or to live another day. I recall some women were beginning, as their hair grows back” [everyone’s heads were shaved upon arrival to camp], “they were beginning to get gray hair, and they would go and take a little piece of coal from one of the pot-bellied stoves that was in a barrack. And they would use this coal to color their hair, so they looked a little younger.

“One grayed at the age of 18 or 19 under those conditions. One never knew if they were in the good line or the bad line, though. One line would go to the gas chambers, the other line would go back to the camp and to the barracks to live another day.”

After losing most of her family, Fritzie was reunited with her aunt at the camp. But this unity was short-lived, as her aunt was chosen to be relocated. In another line meant to go to a gas chamber, Fritzie lingered at the back, hoping to go with her aunt. She was ultimately sent to a different area to do slave labor, where other prisoners, realizing how young she was, gave her crumbs from their bread to help her survive so she could tell their stories after the war.

On a death march from Auschwitz in 1945, Fritzie ran into a forest, where she was later liberated. She moved to the United States and was reunited with her father in 1946. She eventually married Norman Fritzshall, a former US Marine.

Her call to action came in 1978, when a group of neo-Nazis planned a march in Skokie, Fritzie and other survivors joined together to teach people about their experiences. What began as a storefront on Oakton grew into the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, where Fritzie, as president, has facilitated programs educating the public, especially school children, focusing on combating hate with education.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of Fritzie Fritsall, who gave so much to improve the world by sharing her own story bravely,” Finci-Viterbi executive director Stephen Smith said. “I am grateful to have called her a colleague and friend, and that generations to come can continue to learn from her experiences.”

Along with her legacy at the Museum, Fritzie’s memory lives on in USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony project.

You can watch her full-length testimony in the Visual History Archive online.

USC Shoah Foundation