Museum president reflects on anniversary
Fritzie Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, poses in front of an image depicting Kristallnacht in the museum No. 9.
Updated: May 3, 2011 1:42PM
Every Nov. 9, the anniversary of the Nazis' unleashed attack on Jewish businesses, synagogues and homes in pre-World War II Germany, Fritzie Fritzshall remembers.
She remembers her three lives.
"That's how I look at it," says the president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center on the 72nd anniversary of Kristallnacht. "There was before, during and after."
Kristallnacht occurred in Fritzshall's "before life," when she was a young girl living in Czechoslovakia with her family. She says she wasn't old enough to fully grasp the horror of Nov. 9-10, 1938, because she and her two brothers were protected for as long as possible.
But Kristallnacht, a wave of pogroms against German Jews that portended the genocide to come, marked the end of any peaceful existence for families like Fritzshall's. It's easy to see why her memories are divided into such definitive periods; it is almost unimaginable to consider the living nightmare that became the reality for this child and so many just like her.
"We're commemorating Kristallnacht tonight," Fritzshall says, carefully searching out just the right words. "We're remembering the past and we are, of course, here for a reason. But I was very young then and I came from a family where they tried to keep us from knowing. We only knew whispers then, not actual happenings."
Survival through luck
No matter how young though, it was difficult if not impossible to be completely sheltered from the impending and escalating oppression bearing down on European Jews. Fritzshall had an uncle then -- a teenager -- who lived in a town just outside of the big city.
"He would go on his bicycle and into the city and he would try to hide who he was, being a Jew and all, and he would bring back news," Fritzshall says. "I remember my mother wringing her hands and crying and everyone being so upset. I didn't fully understand what was happening but I remember my grandmother was there."
Fritzshall was only 7 then, and although she is reluctant to reveal her age -- joking that she's lied about it for too long now -- her biography on the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center website reports she was born in 1931 in the town of Klucharky. She would eventually lose almost all members of her family to the Holocaust, herself surviving only through luck and the selflessness of others facing similar fates.
Fritzshall's father had already moved to the United States, a necessary step then in bringing over the rest of the family. But the oppression against the Jewish population in Europe escalated rapidly, eventually trapping the family and making their departure impossible despite them having proper immigration papers.
Fritzshall's family eventually moved to her grandparents' home in a mountain area close to the Polish border. German Jews who once lived in Poland but had become citizens of Germany were sent back over the border and stripped of all rights, Fritzshall remembers.
"Hitler took away their bank accounts, their homes and their businesses," she says. "When the Jews came to Poland, they had nothing. They had no jobs, they had no homes, they had nothing."
Many refugees went into the mountain area of Czechoslovakia and sought out Jewish homes where they would beg for food, warm clothes and shelter. Although families were ordered not to help the refugees, many including Fritzshall's family did.
"I remember my grandfather told them to go into the barn and wait for us in the barn," she says. "I remember being handed a bucket when I was a little girl and my grandfather and grandmother would fill the bucket with whatever they had left."
But it was soon enough that Fritzshall's family and so many others like it faced the same oppression. There were few places to hide, she says, as her world grew more threatening.
"We had lived in a small area, and we had all lived in peace," she says. "The Jews had their synagogues and the non-Jews had their churches and we respected each other's religions. We lived as a community."
Non-Jewish friends and neighbors who Fritzshall knew turned, however. She remembers a boy pushing her grandfather into the mud and spitting on him.
"These were the neighbors we lived in peace with, and then the next day, they did this," she says with incredulity. "I didn't understand it. I still don't understand it."
Fritzshall had a good friend who was not Jewish. They slept in the same bed together during sleep-overs; after one, the girls walked to school together.
"There was a man teacher who stood in front of the door of the school -- God I can still see him," says Fritzshall interrupting herself, her voice becoming gravelly, her eyes peering straight ahead as if she is seeing him right now. "He held his hand up and allowed my friend to walk into class and then held his hand up to me and told me I needed to go home. Jewish kids were not allowed to go to school any longer."
Fritzshall's mother was sitting in front of a wood-burning stove holding her two young sons by the time she got home. "We were in tears when she was telling us that we had a different life now. We were told we have different rules we needed to follow."
Former non-Jewish neighbors came to the public school-turned-ghetto where Jewish families like Fritzshall's were ultimately forced to live; they looked at the occupants and laughed at them as if they were a circus act right up until the time Fritzshall's family was transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Fritzshall's mother had lectured her children repeatedly about their uncertain future and the need to stay together. But in the extermination camp that became their new home, that proved impossible. "Little did we know when my mother said that that we were going to be brought into a place where families were torn apart."
In Auschwitz, Fritzshall was lucky enough to meet people who helped save her life, the first an aunt who had arrived earlier but was initially unrecognizable to her.
"She was brought there before me and by the time I came, she was so skinny and so dirty with her head shaved," Fritzshall remembers. "She was my mother's younger sister but I couldn't tell who she was at first."
Her Aunt Bella must have sold her ration of bread for a few days to be able to bring Fritzshall into her own barracks to take care of her.
"She would put her arms around me every single night and tell me tomorrow will be better," Fritzshall remembers, her voice softening. "This was her story, her song. Tomorrow will be better if we live through today."
Bella was eventually taken away just when Fritzshall's entire barracks was sent to the gas chambers. Aunt Bella's last sight of her niece was Fritzshall heading toward the gas chambers where certain death awaited.
But Fritzshall was lucky again, she says; she was one of six women cut off from the line and put on a truck with other women to perform slave labor at a nearby factory, the youngest of 600 of them.
"I had 600 mothers," she says. "These women took care of me, allowed me extra rest. Food was so scarce we could have eaten the bark off a tree if there was one. But each one of them gave an extra crumb of bread to me so I would survive."
Fritzie Weiss (Fritzshall) had become their hope. If anyone would survive, the women thought, it would be the youngest one.
"In turn I made a promise," Fritzshall says. "If I were to survive, I would tell the world what happened."
It took time though for Fritzshall and other survivors to tell all that happened. LIberated in 1945 by the Russian army, Fritzshall eventually was reunited with her father in the United States. They talked about the nightmare she had survived only once and then tried to move on. "When I came to the United States, I needed to be a normal teenager and to live a normal life because I couldn't handle the past," she says.
But when Fritzshall finally did speak, recording testimony at the first Holocaust Museum in Skokie, she never stopped. She fulfilled the promise she had made so many years ago.
Fritzshall helped advance the first museum in Skokie, a storefront on Main Street. She helped raise funds for the national Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. And with a handful of other survivors, she dreamed of a larger facility that not only would provide history about the Holocaust but would educate people to help prevent future genocide.
This year Fritzshall was elected the second president of the new museum following in the footsteps of Sam Harris. She will serve at least one year and likely two in that role. Reminders of her own story can be found in many places in the museum -- on film where her testimony is forever recorded, in the authentic box car which resembles the crowded space where her grandfather died, on the wall of passports similar to the ones her family owned, meaningless papers once the Nazis took control, and in the Book of Remembrance where her aunt's name, Bella, is one of many representing victims who did not survive.
Equally if not more important to Fritzshall is the way the new museum teaches children to stand up for what is right and to show compassion for other people.
Fritzshall as well as anyone knows the consequences of when that doesn't happen.
"We have a wall in the front of the museum that honors the righteous," she says. "They are the people who stood up and did the right thing. They are the people that saved a life, saved a child, saved a family and did whatever they could at the expense of their own lives. This is a bittersweet time because as we pay tribute to these people, we also must remember that this was a time when so many people did not do those things."
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