The very first thing I noticed when I sat down to lunch with Fritzie was her striking beauty. Her deep dark eyes and angular face were picture-framed by wavy brown hair. She just had style. At 71, she projected a classic kind of Hollywood glamour.
Fritzie spoke softly, but intentionally. She didn’t waste words. I remember noticing the scratchiness in her voice, yet the warmth of it washed over me like a waterfall. She effortlessly merged strength and sensitivity into a single sound.
Our lunch took place 20 years ago in downtown Chicago. Fritzie, a child survivor of the Shoah, was going to be the speaker at a young professionals event I was hosting for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. We met a week beforehand to get to know each other, and to meet Fritzie is to instantly love and admire her.
Eleven days ago, Fritzie Fritzshall passed away at the age of 91. When I heard the news, my sadness was tempered by my sense of awe for all that she had accomplished in her towering life. For three decades, Fritzie had been teaching the lessons of the Holocaust by telling the story of the horrors she endured at Auschwitz-Birkenau. For the last 11 years, she’d served as president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.
Fritzie was 13 years old when she and her family were snatched from their home in Czechoslovakia and thrown into a ghetto. Not long after, they were locked into a train car headed for Auschwitz. When they arrived, Fritzie was advised by a fellow Jew to claim that her age was 15 so that her life might be spared in exchange for slave labor. It worked. But her mother and two brothers were murdered by the Nazis.
In the labor camp, Fritzie was the youngest among 600 women. For so many years, she has described the incredibly courageous sacrifice made by those 599 older ladies — so that Fritzie might one day have the chance to tell the world:
“I was chosen to be their messenger. We were so hungry and so beaten down; they hardly gave us any food toward the end. We were getting little pieces of bread. And so every single night when the bread came, I put out my hand, 599 women put crumbs — crumbs, that’s all they could spare — into my hand. That it would give me more nourishment, and they allowed me more rest.”
In 1945, Fritzie was liberated by Soviet troops after she had escaped from a death march into a nearby forest. She and her father Herman, who had come to America before the war, were reunited in Skokie, Illinois.
A week ago, I attended a funeral service for Fritzie in her adopted hometown. The next day, just over a mile away, her friends and colleagues held a memorial celebration of her life at the very museum she helped build. Museum CEO Susan Abrams observed that the timing of the celebration was almost mystical:
“We called on the world to join us and celebrate inaugural Holocaust Survivor Day, on June 24. And here we are. Fritzie was wise and a maximizer, even today. I think so many people have said they feel her hand all the way through.”
The beautiful tributes to Fritzie lasted well over an hour. More than one honored speaker only half-joked that their beloved friend would NOT have wanted such a long fuss. Tough.
After the speeches concluded, a member of the museum staff offered a few of us the chance to experience the soon-to-be-unveiled virtual reality film where Fritzie takes people on an actual tour of Auschwitz. We immediately shuffled into the exhibit’s swivel chairs and slid on our goggles and headsets.
In the film, Fritzie’s recorded image is transposed onto other images of Auschwitz: The arrival ramp where the trains stopped. The barracks. The latrines. She recounts the terrifying memories as if no time has passed.
Describing with any accuracy what it actually feels like to watch this film is impossible. What I can say is that halfway into the 14-minute experience, when I heard Fritzie tell the story of those 599 heroic women — with the virtual likenesses of them surrounding her — I completely lost it and rained into my goggles.
A few days later, I returned to the museum to experience the “Interactive Hologram Survivor Stories Experience.” It had been more than a week since the world had lost Fritzie, yet there we were, a dozen visitors asking her questions — and listening to her answers. Among them, this response about how to prevent another Holocaust:
“I think through love. I think through peace. The knowledge that we, Holocaust survivors, are providing to the world — I think there’s a lot to be learned from that. I think that we are teaching that. And I think it can be prevented today if the people stand up, and speak out, and do what they think the right thing to do is at that particular time. And to not be bystanders, like we had in Europe, but to become the up-standers. Become educated in what is going on. This is what the world needs.”
Yet Fritzie was still terribly worried about the growing hatred and anti-Semitism we’ve all been witnessing. She spoke out on ABC7 not long after the Capitol insurrection, specifically addressing the “Camp Auschwitz” phrase seen on rioters’ clothing: “It made my stomach turn. Why do they have to wear T-shirts with hatred and stuff like that? That’s exactly what the Nazis did.”
Fritzie never stopped speaking out and she never shied away from confronting her fears; even making one last trip to Auschwitz two years ago with her friend Cardinal Blase Cupich. Like everyone else, the Cardinal was in awe of Fritzie’s incredible strength.
Despite the pain of Fritzie’s loss, how fortunate it is for generations to come that before she passed, she was able to create and participate in the museum’s virtual programming to better teach the lessons of the Holocaust. It was said more than once during the memorial that Fritzie took comfort in the fact that her legacy would never stop teaching people how to forge a more peaceful world.
Near the end of the celebration, a longtime member of the Illinois General Assembly, Senator Sara Feigenholtz, paid tribute to her friend. Holding back tears just enough so that she could be heard, and on behalf of the Jewish Caucus, Feigenholtz spoke directly to Fritzie:
“Your lessons, your stories, your faith and your goodness will be with us forever. You will be our guiding light. And when we say: אֵשֶׁת-חַיִל, מִי יִמְצָא — a woman of valor, where can we find her? We found you, Fritzie. You are that woman. You will always be in our memory. Thank you.”