Frieda Fritzshall, 91, dies; Survived to create a Holocaust museum

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Frieda Fritzshall, 91, dies; Survived to create a Holocaust museum
Fritzie in front of her hologram in Illinois Holocaust Museum's Survivor Stories Experience. Photo: Ron Gould.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Frieda Fritzshall, who not only survived the Holocaust but established a museum outside Chicago to keep the memory of it alive for future generations so history would not repeat itself, died June 19 in Deerfield, Illinois. She was 91.

Her death was confirmed by her son, Steven Fritzshall.

Fritzshall was a 13-year-old Jew in Czechoslovakia when she, her mother and two brothers were herded into a ghetto on the last day of Passover in the spring of 1944 by Nazi occupiers. They were transported in cattle cars to the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland, where her mother and siblings were killed.

Fritzshall, who was known as Fritzie, survived by conniving to be accepted into a factory slave labor detail by claiming to be 15. In 1945, with Soviet troops advancing from the east, she escaped while on a death march from Auschwitz.

She resettled in Chicago and reunited with her father, who had emigrated to the United States before the war to support the family. And there she might just as soon have buried the past — until 1977.

That was when she became enraged that a group of American neo-Nazis had deliberately chosen Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish suburb north of Chicago with a disproportionately large population of Holocaust survivors, to stage a rally.

The planned march by the National Socialist Party of America touched off a vitriolic legal battle. Skokie officials denied a parade permit. The American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged the denial on First Amendment grounds but by doing so alienated so many of its members that its very survival was threatened. The neo-Nazis ultimately canceled the march a few days before it was to take place and rescheduled it in a Chicago park.

Fritzshall became part of a small group that began in a survivor’s basement, and then in a storefront, to educate the community about the Holocaust — an effort that slowly evolved, with the support of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. Fundraising and curating finally culminated in the opening of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie in 2009.

In a 2011 review in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein wrote that the museum, a forbidding, “incongruously monumental” building designed by the Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman, would “most likely be among the last such institutions created by survivors of the cataclysm, bearing witness and offering lessons.”

Today, this $45 million, 65,000-square-foot center, which symbolizes a journey from darkness to light, describes itself as the second largest museum devoted to the Holocaust in the nation in total exhibition space, after the 265,000-square-foot United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The museum presents lectures, exhibits, educational programs and vivid, lifelike holograms, in which victims of Nazi atrocities, including Fritzshall, recount their experiences and even respond to questions.

Fritzshall, the museum’s president since 2010, was also instrumental in persuading the Illinois Legislature in 1990 to mandate Holocaust education in public schools.

She returned to Auschwitz in 2019 to record her story for “A Promise Kept,” the museum’s virtual reality experience. She was accompanied by Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who wrote on Twitter last week after Fritzshall’s death that “the world lost a clarion voice against bigotry and hatred, and I lost a good friend.”

Susan Abrams, the museum’s chief executive, said: “I regularly watched in awe as Fritzie mesmerized audiences with her story and its lessons. All who were touched by her will never forget.”

Frieda Weiss was born on Aug. 21, 1929, in Klucharky, Czechoslovakia, to Herman and Sara (Davidovits) Weiss. Her father was a shopkeeper there. In Chicago he worked for the Vienna Sausage Co. By the time he could send for his family, the war had already started, and Sara Weiss worried that trans-Atlantic travel was unsafe.

After settling in the Chicago area, Frieda attended beauty school and became a manicurist. She married Norman Fritzshall, a Marine veteran who had survived four years in Japanese prisoner of war camps during World War II; he died in 2003. In addition to their son, she is survived by two grandchildren.

In interviews with the United States Holocaust Museum and the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, Fritzshall recalled the train ride in cattle cars to Auschwitz, during which a grandfather of hers died.

“No windows, had no seats and no toilet,” she said. “When we got onto the train, none of us knew we were being taken to a concentration camp. 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 she arrived at the camp, Jewish prisoners assigned to unload the trains told her how to survive — by qualifying for a work detachment.

“They walked amongst us and in Yiddish would whisper to a child: ‘You’re 15. Remember you’re 15,’” she said, recalling one Jewish prisoner in particular. “When we got off the train, they asked us to line up according to age. I lined up, and I became 15 years old. I lined up with the 15-year-olds, and I truly believe that man, whoever he was, saved my life.”

Older prisoners, fearing that they would be deemed too frail to work, colored their graying hair with coal.

With the number of Holocaust survivors dwindling, Fritzshall was committed to leaving a legacy that future generations would not forget.

“I want the world to remember and to know to never, ever, ever, ever forget about the Holocaust,” she said in a 2019 interview. “We say, ‘never again,’ but we don’t often mean ‘never again.’ ‘Never again’ must be ‘never again.’ It must stop.”

“When I am no longer here, when we, the survivors, are no longer here,” she said, “our stories are going to live and our stories are going to go on.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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