'I'm still in Auschwitz': 75 years after camp's liberation, Holocaust survivor remains haunted by memories
It's been 75 years since Fritzie Fritzshall and thousands of other prisoners were marched out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex by their Nazi tormentors, headed toward an uncertain fate.
She was Fritzie Weiss then, a Czech teenager torn from her home and her family and imprisoned in a barbed wire-encircled hell, death all around her.
It's been 75 years since she and another prisoner ran from the marching column into the woods, no longer caring if they'd be gunned down. Seventy-five years since a couple in a nearby town took pity on them and offered shelter.
It's been 75 years -- to everyone except Fritzie Fritzshall.
"In my mind, I'm still in Auschwitz," the Buffalo Grove resident said. "Seventy-five years feel like yesterday."
Monday marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Soviet Union's Red Army. The date has become known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Fritzshall, the president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, spoke vividly with the Daily Herald about her experiences. Now 90, she is among a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors still living and able to tell their tales.
Fritzshall's memories are sharp -- and her words are often gut-wrenching.
What was Auschwitz?
Established in southern Poland in 1940, Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest German concentration camp complex. It consisted of more than 40 concentration and extermination camps.
Originally a prison camp for Polish political prisoners, it expanded and, starting in 1942, played a key role in the attempted extermination of European Jews.
More than 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, died at Auschwitz-Birkenau before the war's end. They were victims of gas chambers, gunfire, starvation, disease, diabolical medical experiments and other causes.
Preserved as a state-run memorial and museum since 1947, many of Auschwitz's structures are still standing, including barracks, a crematorium and the metal gate that hauntingly proclaims "arbeit macht frei" -- German for "work will set you free." The site remains one of the most recognizable remnants of the Holocaust.
'A horrible vision'
In the mid-1940s, a few years after Czechoslovakia was occupied by German troops, the Nazis forcibly transported Fritzshall, her mother, her two brothers and other relatives by freight train to Auschwitz because they were Jews. Fritzshall can't recall the exact date or year, but she says with full confidence that she was 13 -- so it probably was around 1943.
Fritzshall's father escaped his family's fate. He had earlier moved to the U.S. for work, intending to bring his family one day.
That day never came.
Fritzshall remembers being pushed and pulled as she and other Jews were unloaded like cattle upon arrival at the camp. She remembers soldiers with guns. She remembers dogs barking. She remembers children being torn from mothers' arms. She remembers people being beaten.
"It's such a horrible vision," Fritzshall said. "It's a nightmare that I relive every day."
Prisoners who weren't immediately murdered in gas chambers were put to work. Fritzshall recalled that her first job was moving heavy rocks from one place to another. The next day, she was ordered to move them back to their original spots. That pattern continued for a while.
Fritzshall eventually was taken to Birkenau, the largest of the camps in the Auschwitz complex. She was put to work in a factory with 599 women.
"My job was to put a spring into a certain piece (of equipment)," she recalled.
As has been widely reported, there wasn't enough food for concentration camp prisoners, nor warm clothes, nor comfortable bedding. An aunt also in the camp sold her rations of bread to other women so Fritzshall could have room with her on a bunk to sleep.
"She put her arms around me every single night when we went to sleep because we were so cold and so hungry," Fritzshall told the USC Shoah Foundation for an interactive museum exhibition. "And I was crying myself to sleep."
As time went on, the prisoners knew little of how the war was going. News only came from fresh arrivals -- and they didn't know much, either.
But then prisoners heard airplanes overhead -- and gunfire from nearby ground battles.
It was January 1945.
The Soviet Union's Red Army was coming.
As the Soviets advanced from the east in the second half of 1944, the Nazis began evacuating prisoners from Auschwitz-Birkenau to other camps in what was left of German-occupied Europe. They also began covering up their crimes by dismantling the crematoriums and gas chambers, removing or burning documents and destroying other evidence.
After the Red Army broke through the final German defenses near Auschwitz-Birkenau in mid-January 1945, the Nazis marched some 56,000 prisoners west out of the camps. Some were loaded onto trains or trucks and transported elsewhere; others stayed on foot.
About 9,000 prisoners were left in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Before the Soviets arrived, however, mass executions were carried out. Some prisoners were burned alive.
The Soviets entered the camps on Jan. 27. About 7,500 surviving prisoners were liberated.
Fritzshall, however, was among the prisoners who had been marched out earlier.
"It truly was a death march," she recalled. "You need to imagine all of us cold and hungry, undernourished."
The marchers were led from town to town and field to field for days, maybe a week or more, Fritzshall said. Exhausted prisoners dropped dead in the street.
"Wherever they fell, they were left," she said.
Prisoners who were too weak to march were shot. Prisoners who tried to escape were shot.
Fritzshall reached a breaking point. She clasped hands with another girl, and together they dashed toward a forest.
"We just couldn't march any longer," Fritzshall said. "If they shoot us, they'll shoot us."
But the girls didn't draw gunfire. Either their captors didn't notice their escape, Fritzshall said, or they didn't care.
After spending most of the night in the woods, the girls found a town and knocked on the door of a house. The people who answered gave them sanctuary in a barn.
When the Red Army arrived, their civilian saviors brought the Soviet soldiers to them, knowing the troops could offer assistance.
The girls were reunited with the now-liberated prisoners with whom they'd been marching. The Soviets gave them food, showers, medical attention and clean clothes.
"I remember that first shower," Fritzshall said. "I just didn't want to get out."
Fritzshall was taken to a camp for displaced persons. After a while, she was given transportation to her hometown in Czechoslovakia, where she hoped to find other members of her immediate family.
There were none. Her mother and brothers had been killed at Auschwitz. Only one uncle and one aunt survived.
'I see all of us'
After the war, Fritzshall emigrated to the United States and reunited with her father.
She married and had a family of her own.
Fritzshall didn't talk about her experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau for many years. Once she opened up, though, teaching others about the Holocaust at the museum and through public speaking became therapeutic.
"That's how I live with it," she said. "That's how I handle it."
U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider of Deerfield knows Fritzshall through her work at the museum. He called her "an extraordinary and inspirational teacher and witness."
Schneider, who is Jewish, was part of a congressional delegation that toured Auschwitz-Birkenau last week to commemorate the anniversary of its liberation.
"We must never forget the evils unleashed by anti-Semitism, extremism and hatred, and remain steadfast in our fight against these threats in our own time," Schneider told the Daily Herald during his trip.
Fritzshall has returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau several times since the war. Last summer, an ABC 7 news crew accompanied her and Cardinal Blase Cupich on their visit to the camps. The resulting footage became a documentary called "Return to Auschwitz: A Survivor's Story."
"Every time I go back and walk into it and walk on those roads ... I see all of us," Fritzshall said. "People say it was so many years ago. But it wasn't. It was my lifetime."