Remembering Fritzie Fritzshall, President of Illinois Holocaust Museum

Fritzie speaks at Illinois Holocaust Museum's annual Humanitarian Awards Dinner. Photo Credit: Ron Gould Studio
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With input from the Illinois Holocaust Museum

I was deeply saddened when I received an announcement from the Illinois Holocaust Museum stating, “World Mourns Auschwitz Survivor and Innovator in Holocaust Education, Fritzie Fritzshall, President of Illinois Holocaust Museum, dies at 91”.

Splash Magazines Worldwide has been sharing stories about the Illinois Holocaust Museum since the day that it opened with great fanfare until present exhibitions.  It seems very important to share Fritzie Fritzshall’s story.  She has such an important role in the creation of the museum and its development.

Fritzie Fritzshall, Photo Credit -Chris Stron

Fritzie devoted her life to combatting hatred and prejudice, inspiring people to become Upstanders instead of bystanders, and speaking out to make our world a better place. She tirelessly fought hatred, telling her harrowing story of survival and articulating her insights on current issues, including the rise of antisemitism and the refugee crisis.  Interestingly, she died on Juneteenth, now a declared holiday.

B&W photograph of Fritzie Weiss Fritzshall and her mother, Sara Davidovich Weiss. Klyucharki, Czechoslovakia (present-day Kliucharky, Ukraine). c. 1940

She was a Holocaust Survivor. When the Nazis occupied Fritzie’s hometown of Klucharky, Czechoslovakia, and deported Fritzie, her mother, and two brothers to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Fritzie was just a young teenager. Her mother, two younger brothers, and other family members were murdered. “There is no way to describe what it was like to be in the rail car hungry, cold, without food, without water, watching pregnant women begging for water, watching different people dying in front of you from lack of food, air, and water,” Fritzie said. “My own grandfather died in this car going to Auschwitz.”

B&W photograph of Fritzie Weiss Fritzshall, age 17/18. Chicago, Illinois. circa 1946

To survive, she pretended to be older than she was. Fritzie endured a torturous year in Auschwitz and a related Nazi labor camp, where she worked doing slave labor in a factory. In 1945, she was finally liberated by the Soviet Army after escaping into a nearby forest during a death march.

After the war, in 1946, Fritzie came to Skokie, Illinois, to reunite with her father, who worked for Vienna Beef. He had come to America before the Holocaust to provide his family with money from abroad. Fritzie married a U.S. veteran of World War II who had been a prisoner of war in the Pacific, and she made a life for herself in Chicagoland as a hairdresser, becoming an avid Cubs fan in the process.

In the late 1970s when neo-Nazis threatened to march through the streets of Skokie, Fritzie became an activist. The terror and outrage of seeing swastikas in their community galvanized a group of Survivors to establish the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois in 1981 to fight bigotry with education. The Foundation was a small but passionate operation housed in a modest storefront on Skokie’s Main Street.

“We said we came to a free country, and we don’t need to be afraid to say we are Jews,” she recalled. “We don’t need to be afraid to walk out on the street and be identified. We are not wearing the yellow armbands any longer.”

It was the dream of Fritzie along with 20 Chicagoland Holocaust Survivors, who were meeting in one Survivor’s basement to  one day open an educational institution that would preserve Survivor stories and teach the lessons of the Holocaust to current and future generations.

In 1990, Fritzie, with other Survivors, convinced Governor James Thompson to sign the first Holocaust Education Mandate into law, making Illinois the first state in the country to require the teaching of the Holocaust in all public elementary and high schools. “I want to encourage teacher training and student learning about man’s continued inhumanity to man,” Fritzie said.

Fritzie in front of her hologram in Illinois Holocaust Museum’s Survivor Stories Experience. Survivor Stories Experience features Dimensions in Testimony, developed by USC Shoah Foundation in association with Illinois Holocaust Museum. Photo Credit: Ron Gould

Their dream was realized when in 2009 Chicagoland Survivors’ long-held vision of opening a world-class educational institution became a reality with the opening of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center on Woods Drive in Skokie. It is the third-largest Holocaust museum in the world.  Since 2010, Fritzie has served as its President.

Remarkably, under Fritzie’s leadership, the Museum grew to inspire more than 285,000 individuals annually, teaching them to stand up for what is right – transforming powerful lessons of history into positive actions today. The Museum has also received national acclaim, including recognition as a 2017 recipient of the National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest award to a Service, the nation’s highest award to a museum.

“Fritzie was the heart and soul of our Museum,” said Susan Abrams, CEO of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. “She played an important role in the Museum transforming from regional player to global leader, sharing her story of survival and its lessons through cutting edge technology including interactive holograms and virtual reality film. I regularly watched in awe as Fritzie mesmerized audiences with her story and its lessons. All who were touched by her will never forget. She was an inspiration to me and to so many others.”

It was the dream of Fritzie along with 20 Chicagoland Holocaust Survivors, who were meeting in one Survivor’s basement to  one day open an educational institution that would preserve Survivor stories and teach the lessons of the Holocaust to current and future generations.

Fritzie answering thousands of questions for Dimensions in Testimony. (Photo courtesy of USC Shoah Foundation)

In 2009, Chicagoland Survivors’ long-held vision of opening a world-class educational institution became a reality with the opening of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center on Woods Drive in Skokie. It is the third-largest Holocaust museum in the world, and, since 2010, Fritzie served as its President.

“Fritzie was the heart and soul of our Museum,” said Susan Abrams, CEO of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. “She played an important role in the Museum transforming from regional player to global leader, sharing her story of survival and its lessons through cutting edge technology including interactive holograms and virtual reality film. I regularly watched in awe as Fritzie mesmerized audiences with her story and its lessons. All who were touched by her will never forget. She was an inspiration to me and to so many others.”

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

Later in her life, Fritzie became concerned that the world would not remember the horrors of Auschwitz. What might become of those hallowed and horrific grounds in years to come? Would they be maintained? Or allowed to decay, decimating the proof of what happened to her and millions of others.

In 2021, the Museum will premiere A Promise Kept, a virtual reality experience where visitors can stand with Fritzie as she returns to Auschwitz and tells the story of the promise she made to 599 women who, with each crumb of bread, kept her alive during the Holocaust.

Again, showing Fritzie’s commitment to innovation in support of Holocaust education, this is the first time that virtual reality technology will be used to archive, preserve, and produce Holocaust Survivor testimony in Auschwitz.

Photo credit: Tom Maday

Fritzie even became a media personality. She enjoyed a special friendship with Cardinal Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago, returned to Auschwitz in July 2019 to record her story for A Promise Kept, the virtual reality experience in development by the Museum. With the Cardinal as her companion, this trip became the subject of a 4-part program which aired on ABC7 Chicago entitled Return to Auschwitz. The series explored the history and lessons of the Holocaust and was hosted by news anchor Alan Krashesky, drawing record-breaking audiences. Statements  about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Fritzie and her fellow Survivors received broad media coverage from major news outlets, including NBC, ABC, WGN, Chicago Tribune, and Huffington Post, among others.

Fritzie received numerous awards throughout her tenure as Museum president, including the Bertha Honoré Palmer Making History Award for Distinction in Civic Leadership awarded by the Chicago History Museum in 2016, the Global Citizenship Award from the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois in 2020, and in 2021, the Outstanding Community Leader Award from the Chicago Cultural Alliance.

As Mother, Grandmother, and Matriarch, Fritzie inspired countless individuals with her powerful message of hope and resilience following the darkness of the Holocaust. However, her proudest achievement was the family she built with her late husband, World War II Veteran Norman Fritzshall. Fritzie and Norm cherished their son, Steve, their daughter-in-law, Hinda, and their grandsons, Scott and Andy. She also enjoyed a special relationship with her nieces and other family members.

Arrival ramp at Auschwitz in “A Promise Kept” (Courtesy of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Winikur Productions)

“To know Fritzie and to understand Fritzie’s life journey is to know a true humanitarian, a true hero in so many ways, a person of immense compassion, filled with humility and desire for a better world,” said Jordan Lamm, Chair of the Museum’s Board of Directors.

Fritzie was a Holocaust Survivor who made an extraordinary difference in the world. She exuded both openness and warmth and was always willing to strike up a conversation with a stranger – in an elevator, hallway, or on the sidewalk. Visitors to Illinois Holocaust Museum will continue to see her life’s work transform the future.

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