'We knew one line was going to the gas chamber'

Auschwitz survivor heads exhibit that highlights holocaust horrors

Josef Mengele died in 1979 but he lives on in Fritzie Fritzshall's nightmares: He's the unsmiling Angel of Death, peering at lines of naked Auschwitz prisoners and callously choosing who would live and who die.

“We had to walk undressed sometimes every single day, sometimes every two days, sometimes twice a day,” said Fritzshall, a Buffalo Grove resident and board president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.

She arrived at Auschwitz in 1944.

Fritzshall said Mengele carried a riding crop, which he used to silently carry out his sentences.

“He would wave it this way or that way,” she said. “It was strictly a motion; he didn't say anything. One person would go into this line, directly to the gas chamber, the other would go back to the barracks.

“And yes, we knew that one line was going to go into the gas chamber.”

Mengele's selections seemed very random, said Fritzshall, and happened so frequently because new trainloads of prisoners were always coming into Auschwitz, where 1 million Jews died.

An exhibit on Mengele's “experiments” inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp is at the Holocaust Museum through Jan. 2.

“Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” shows the progression of the eugenics movement in the 1930s and '40s, through forced sterilization, then euthanasia and finally concentration camps, genocide and the mass killing of Jews.

The exhibit on deadly medicine, produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, concentrates on the doctors and other scientists who carried out the Nazi programs. Few of these were indicted or punished after the war, and many continued their professional careers. Mengele, nicknamed the “Angel of Death,” primarily for the brutal experiments he performed on live prisoners, escaped to South America where he died in 1979.

Visitors get a glimpse into his world, with institutional beds, charts and gadgets showing gradations of eye or skin color, like those used to rate people, and instruments used by Nazi doctors. And there are posters, pictures and videos.

The horrible experiments on live prisoners known to have occurred in the camps are not highlighted.

“Science is rooted in culture,” said Rachel Hellenga, director of program services at the museum. “We think it's objective. These men and women may not have realized how much their views were colored. It's a branch of science called eugenics now dismissed as pseudoscience.”

The U.S. and other countries were not immune from some of the theories that blossomed into Nazi horrors.

A 1934 photo shows visitors to a Pasadena exhibit called “Eugenics in the New Germany.” Sterilization gained support in the U.S. as a means of reducing costs for the care of poor and institutionalized people, and rates of sterilization climbed in some states during the Depression.

Fritzshall said it amazes her that it was doctors who took an oath to do no harm who performed these outrages, and the exhibit is very emotional for her.

“I can't even explain the feeling it gives me,” she said. “It is one of the difficult things for me to walk through. It is extremely difficult. Maybe because I'm so close to it.”

She remembers how women inside Auschwitz would help other women look as healthy as possible and therefore capable of working for Mengele's roll calls. Women's heads were shaved as they entered the camp, and when the hair started to grow back, it was often gray. Women rubbed dirt in their stubble to make it look darker, and pinched each others' cheeks.

“We would ... hold each other up as we walked through the line,” she recalled.

Now, Fritzshall is willing to walk through the exhibit with a reporter to educate others.

“I put my own thoughts and feelings aside so that I can educate people that come into this museum to walk away with a little bit of knowledge about what we went through,” she said.

Richard S. Hirschhaut, executive director of the museum, praised Fritzshall as a remarkable leader.

“She brings a unique grace, poise and vision as the face of all this institution represents,” he said. “She's hopeful and optimistic but ever grounded in the understanding where hate and intolerance can lead if left unchecked.”

Fritzshall was a young girl living in Czechoslovakia when it was invaded by the Germans in 1939. Overnight, a dark cloud settled over her community.

“Jews had to stand in line if they wanted to go into grocery stores, not drink water from the same fountains, not congregate,” she said.

“New laws were posted every single day. My mother had to go out and read new rules every day. And of course we needed to wear the yellow star.”

In 1944, at age 13, she was transported to Auschwitz, where she lost her mother, two brothers and the aunt who protected her in the camp. She was liberated from a death march by the Russian army in 1945 and was reunited with her father in the U.S. in 1946.

She eventually married Norman Fritzshall, a former U.S. Marine who was captured at Wake Island and imprisoned by the Japanese while she was in Auschwitz.

Fritzshall has been involved with telling survivors' stories for decades. In the late 1970s neo-Nazis threatened to march on Skokie, where she lived, and the terror and outrage of seeing swastikas in their community galvanized area survivors, who opened a small museum in 1985.

Finally, a 65,000-square-foot, $45 million building designed by architect Stanley Tigerman opened last year and can accommodate 250,000 visitors annually.

“We really need to thank the Nazis who were going to march on Skokie,” said Fritzshall. “Because of them we were able to build this wonderful institution.”

The Holocaust museum she helped found not only shows what happened in Europe, it also demonstrates how bright the future can be if people work at it and listen to the past.

“What we're trying to do is bring across a message of what can happen,” said Fritzshall. “So this doesn't happen to your children, your grandchildren. It's not just a museum, it's a teaching institution.”

Fritzshall says it is easy to put the past behind her in the day time. “But then come the nights. You have no control over your dreams. The nightmares are constant, constant. I had to accept that my family was gone.”

And the center works against other genocides such as in Darfur and tells what happened in Rwanda, Cambodia and the Balkans.

“We need to care for our neighbors,” said Fritzshall. “Someone took a chance and risked their lives and because of that I survived.”

  Fritzie Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center board, shows one of the exhibits. GEORGE LECLAIRE/
  Fritzie Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center board, explains what the exhibit “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” means to holocaust survivors like herself. GEORGE LECLAIRE/
  Fritzie Fritzshall of Buffalo Grove is president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. GEORGE LECLAIRE/
  Here is the entrance to the temporary exhibit Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. GEORGE LECLAIRE/
  Gynecological calipers that Bruno Lambert, a German Jewish medical student, brought to the U.S. when he emigrated in 1938. GEORGE LECLAIRE/

If you go

<p>'Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,' Illinois Holocaust & Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie. Not recommended for children under 12.</p>

<p>When: Through Jan. 2</p>

<p>General museum admission: $12; $8 for seniors and students; $6 for children 5-11.</p>

<p>More info:; (847) 967-4800;</p>