Survivor’s Auschwitz Tour

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She didn’t want to talk about it.

Fritzie Fritzshall survived Auschwitz, came to Chicago, and built what most of us are lucky enough to consider a normal life, with work and marriage, a child and a home.

She did this by putting her Auschwitz experience in a mental box and closing it. Not denying it, but denying his continued presence in his life. She didn’t want it to define her.

Until she does.

Fritzshall was born in Czechoslovakia in 1931 and was 13 when Nazi occupiers forced her and her family first into a ghetto and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where her mother and two brothers were murdered. She became the youngest worker in a forced labor factory, survived a death march in 1945, arrived in America the following year, and tried to say nothing of it all for nearly four decades.

In the early 1980s, as the Holocaust Memorial Foundation began collecting video testimony from survivors, Fritzshall’s son Steve, who had been taught not to ask her about it, urged her to participate. Make a tape of it and bring me a copy home, he said. When she did, the floodgates opened. The starving women who worked in this factory of forced labor had shared their small portion of bread with her so that she, as a youngest, could survive. In the video made that day, she says she failed in her duty to tell their story.

And from there, she did. Hoping that teaching about the Holocaust would prevent something like this from happening again, she never stopped talking about it.

Fritzshall passed away on June 19, 2021, but that’s not stopping her either.

“The Journey Home”
Free with admission to the museum, but can only accommodate eight spectators at a time; advance ticket reservations, available at ilholocaustmuseum.org, are required for this and the hologram.

At the time of her death, she had been president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center for over a decade, and you can still see and hear her tell her story there. She is one of the rotating witnesses of the museum’s interactive “Survivor Stories” hologram exhibit (where viewers actually speak with the dead). She also features in the museum’s latest high-tech offering, “The Journey Back,” a virtual reality trip to Auschwitz that opens to the public on January 27.

The new VR experience consists of two 15-minute films. A promise kept follows Fritzshall from the idyllic Czechoslovakian/Hungarian countryside of his childhood to the Auschwitz complex in Poland. Do not forget me traces the parallel story of George Brent, also barely a teenager when he was taken from his Czechoslovakian home to Auschwitz where his mother and brother were killed, then to two brutal labor and starvation camps in Austria – Mauthausen and Ebensee.

A chance to view both films brought me to the museum last week and reminded me that after many visits, I still haven’t mastered its two-building layout. It’s no coincidence: the permanent exhibition, which moves chronologically through the Holocaust, from life in Europe before World War II through the war years to liberation, is a deliberately disorienting maze which propels the viewer on a one-way trip from darkness to light. As its architect Stanley Tigerman explains in a video available on the museum’s website, it is a building in which every detail – from the exterior columns to the number of windows in the reflection room and the shape of the theater space – makes sense.

Kelley Szany, the museum’s vice president of education and exhibits, traveled to Europe with Fritzshall for the VR shoot. She says the concept emerged after the Fritzshall hologram was made, out of the realization that, like the survivors, these sites might not be permanently available.

“This is the first time that the stories of survivors have been merged with the sites of these atrocities in virtual reality,” Szany told me; the idea is to “archive and preserve them”, to help educate about what can happen “when people remain indifferent and allow hatred to grow”.

Auschwitz (like other Nazi concentration and death camps) was largely cleared; what you see of it in this movie, beyond the infamous gate and train tracks, is mostly bare ground, antiseptic fences and empty buildings. Partly because of this, VR technology, with its 360-degree views and clunky glasses (remember 3D?), is arguably less effective for this museum’s storytelling than the incredibly effective interactive holograms. But that’s a high bar.

And when Fritzshall arrives at Auschwitz, we see the place come alive for her – the sights, the sounds, the deadly cold, the dirt and the stench coming back. She recalls, in the film, that the collective latrines, a single room filled with long open benches pierced with holes one after the other, were both an example of Nazi strategies to degrade and dehumanize prisoners, and, ironically , a place of value for them. Because it was the only place where the guards didn’t follow them, she says, it became a kind of hellish refuge – the only place in the camp where they could connect, kiss, communicate freely (even pray together), and affirm their humanity.

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