'A hero to our world': Fritzie Fritzshall, Auschwitz survivor from Buffalo Grove, dies at 91
Fritzie Fritzshall devoted her life to educating, to inspiring, and to combating the type of hatred and prejudice she experienced more than 75 years ago at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
The president -- and the "heart and soul" -- of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center died Saturday at the age of 91, the Skokie nonprofit announced.
But Fritzshall's harrowing survival story and decades of activism created a lasting impact, carrying out a goal she conveyed in a 2019 interview shared by the museum: "I want the world to remember and to know to never, ever, ever, ever forget about the Holocaust."
"It was her mission in life to be the messenger for those who had no voice," said museum volunteer Rita Mathias, who became emotional as she spoke of Fritzshall's close relationship with her and her husband, former Buffalo Grove mayor and state Rep. Sid Mathias.
"She was always thinking of other people, always thinking of what would be best for her family, for her friends and for the museum," Rita Mathias continued. "She was a hero to our world, and she is irreplaceable."
Fritzshall was just 13 years old when Nazis occupied her hometown of Klucharky, Czechoslovakia, and forcibly transported her and family members by train to Auschwitz because they were Jews, the Buffalo Grove resident told the Daily Herald last year.
"It's a nightmare that I relive every day," she said.
She pretended to be older than she was in order to survive -- a tip she learned from a man on the train -- and was sent to work as a slave laborer in a factory. Her mother, two younger brothers and other relatives were murdered.
In 1945, Fritzshall was liberated by the Soviet Union's Red Army, after escaping into a nearby forest during a death march, museum leaders said. She moved to Skokie after the war and was reunited with her father, who had moved to the U.S. before the Holocaust for work.
When Fritzshall shared her story with Gov. J.B. Pritzker for the first time nearly a quarter-century ago, she stressed that the stranger on the train had saved her life, he said in a statement Saturday. Her message was simple: "One person can make a difference."
"Fritzie was that person who made a difference for many," Pritzker said. "She embodied the decency and kindness she implored from others. She was strong and faithful and caring. A fundamentally good person is gone today. I miss her already, and I will never forget her."
She went on to marry the late Norman Fritzshall, a U.S. veteran of World War II, and made a living as a hairdresser in the Chicago area. She considered her family to be her proudest achievement, museum leaders said, pointing to her close relationships with her son, Steve; daughter-in-law, Hinda; grandsons, Scott and Andy; and her nieces and other relatives.
Fritzshall didn't speak of her experiences at Auschwitz for years, she told the Daily Herald, but said she later found it therapeutic to teach others about the Holocaust.
She was integral in getting the Illinois Holocaust Museum off the ground and played an active role in transforming the nonprofit from a "regional player to global leader," CEO Susan Abrams said. She engaged in public speaking opportunities and shared her memories through cutting-edge technology, including interactive holograms and virtual reality films.
"I regularly watched in awe as Fritzie mesmerized audiences with her story and its lessons," Abrams said. "All who were touched by her will never forget. She was an inspiration to me and to so many others."
And still, Fritzshall remained motivated in her fight against hatred and bigotry, Rita Mathias said, often posing the question, "How will I know when I've done enough?"
The Mathiases were inspired to become more involved with the museum after accompanying Fritzshall to Auschwitz about seven years ago, one of her several trips back since the war. As she walked through the barracks and recounted her experiences, "there was not a dry eye in the place," said Sid Mathias, whose father also was a Holocaust survivor.
Fritzshall returned to Auschwitz for the last time in the summer of 2019 with Cardinal Blase Cupich and an ABC 7 news crew. The trip became the subject of a documentary, "Return to Auschwitz: A Survivor's Story."
She has received numerous awards during her tenure as museum president, including the Chicago History Museum's Bertha Honoré Palmer Making History Award for Distinction in Civic Leadership in 2016; the Global Citizenship Award from the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois in 2020; and the Outstanding Community Leader Award from the Chicago Cultural Alliance this year.
"To know Fritzie and to understand Fritzie's life journey is to know a true humanitarian, a true hero in so many ways, a person of immense compassion, filled with humility and desire for a better world," museum board Chairman Jordan Lamm said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider of Deerfield, who knew Fritzshall through her work at the museum, said he had the "great honor" of speaking with her just a few weeks ago about antisemitism and the Holocaust.
"I am so grateful to have known her and will forever be inspired her remarkable story," Schneider said in a statement. "My condolences go out to her family and the many that knew and loved her. May her memory be a blessing."
Funeral arrangements are pending.