While in Auschwitz, a teenage Frieda Weiss was kept alive by 599 fellow prisoners, all women. They fed her crumbs of their rations, in exchange for her promise to tell their story if she survived.
Her face and voice will be part of a virtual reality experience about the Shoah, recorded at Auschwitz, opening at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center later this year. The exhibit's name: "A Promise Kept."
But she kept her promise long before now. As president of the Museum since 2010, Frieda "Fritzie" Fritzshall shared the story of the Holocaust and its survivors with tens of thousands. She passed away on June 18, at 91.
"Fritzie was asked by her fellow prisoners to be their messenger," said John Rowe, past chair of the Museum's board of trustees. "She fulfilled that hope in the ultimate way through this museum."
One of her oft-told stories was how, when her train arrived at Auschwitz, one of the prisoners charged with emptying the railcar took a risk by whispering to her in Yiddish: "You're fifteen, remember you're fifteen." When ordered to line up by age, Fritzshall queued up with the 15-year-olds-a move she credited with saving her life.
"Fritzie wanted us to know that there are good people everywhere. She spent much of her life teaching that we all need to be like the stranger who saved her life on the train at Auschwitz," recalled Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, the first chair of the Museum's board of trustees. "Fritzie embodied the decency and kindness she implored from others."
When she was still a teen in Czechoslovakia, her family was captured by the Nazis. She endured a year in Auschwitz and a slave-labor factory. In 1945, she was liberated by the Soviet Army after escaping into a forest during a death march. Aside from her father, who had come to the U.S. before the war, she was the only one in her family to survive.
The following year, Fritzie came to Skokie and reunited with him. She worked as a hairdresser and married Norman Fritzshall, an American WWII vet who had been a P.O.W.
She became activist when neo-Nazis threatened to march through Skokie in 1977. She was among the community members who responded; they established the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois in 1981.
Fritzshall recalled, "We said, 'We came to a free country, and we don't need to be afraid to say we are Jews. We are not wearing the yellow armbands any longer.'"
In 1990, Fritzshall and other survivors convinced Governor James Thompson to sign the Holocaust Education Mandate into law, making Illinois the first state to require teaching the Holocaust in all public schools.
Then, in 2009, the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center opened. Fritzshall became president the next year. It grew to be the third-largest Holocaust museum in the world. Today, the Museum inspires more than a quarter-million individuals annually through its exhibitions and educational efforts.
"Fritzie was the heart and soul of our Museum," said Susan Abrams, its CEO. "She played an important role in transforming it from regional player to global leader, sharing her story of survival and its lessons through cutting-edge technology. I regularly watched in awe as Fritzie mesmerized audiences with her story and its lessons."
Even before the virtual reality exhibit, Fritzshall oversaw the Museum's interactive holographic installation, The Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience. She has "become" one of the holograms herself, able to answer viewers' questions as if conversing.
"To know Fritzie is to know a true humanitarian," said Jordan Lamm, Chair of the Museum's Board of Directors. "She was a true hero in so many ways, filled with humility, compassion, and desire for a better world."
In 2019, Fritzshall told an interviewer: "I want the world to remember- to never, ever, ever, ever forget the Holocaust. 'Never again' must be never again."
Fritzshall, nee Weiss, was the beloved wife of the late Norman, the devoted mother of Steven (Hinda Meadow) Fritzshall, and the proud grandmother two. The caring sister of two late brothers, she was the loving daughter of the late Herman and Sarah, and a cherished aunt and cousin of many. Arrangements were made by Weinstein & Piser Funeral Home. Interment was at Westlawn Cemetery. Memorials may be made to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.