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Lightfoot, Aldermen Honor Late Holocaust Survivor Fritzie Fritszshall As 'Lifelong Crusader For Social Justice'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Chicago City Council on Wednesday paid tribute to Frieda "Fritzie" Fritzshall, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz who went on to become the longtime president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, before her death last month at the age of 91.

Calling Fritzshall a "lifelong crusader for social justice," Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th) said "our city lost a major voice in the fight against bigotry and hatred" with Fritzshall's passing.

"A Holocaust survivor herself, she overcame the atrocities of Auschwitz and went on to dedicate her life to making this world a better place," said Silverstein, one of two Jewish members of the City Council.

Fritzshall died last month, after having served the past 11 years as president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.

Fritzshall was only 13 when the Nazis occupied her hometown of Klucharky, Czechoslovakia, and deported her along with her mothers and two brothers to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where her mother and brothers were murdered, along with other family members.

"I am cold. I am hungry and I see the gas chambers, the families being torn apart," Fritzshall told CBS 2's Vince Gerasole in a January 2020 interview..

She pretended to be older than she was to survive. A man told her to lie and exaggerate her age.

"He saved my life. He knew that the children under 15 would go to the gas chambers," Fritzshall said.

She saw her mother pulled from a line and sent to the gas chambers. But some family remained.

"I had an aunt who put her arms around me and said, 'If we can survive tonight, tomorrow will be better,'" Fritzshall told Gerasole.

Fritzshall endured a torturous year in Auschwitz and a related labor camp, where she did slave labor in a factory, the museum recalled.

She often explained she survived the death camp thanks to the kindness of others who shared their scant food and water with her.

Fritzshall was liberated at last by the Soviet Army after escaping into a forest during a death march, the museum recalled.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), the other Jewish member of the City Council, said Fritzshall went on to dedicate her life to making sure the Holocaust is never forgotten.

Smith said many members of her family and other Jewish families don't know much about their past, because when many families were freed from the Holocaust, "they came to America and said I'm never going to think about this again, and you can imagine why they didn't, because those events can overshadow you, and kill you inside, and prevent you from having a family."

"But Fritzie and some other brave people like her said 'no,' and, 'We are going to perform a higher calling. We are going to remember.' And this is the lesson that her work is done, is by helping people know that these things actually happened to people," Smith said.

Smith said her brother-in-law recently found both his grandparents were on a forced death march in Hungary during the Holocaust, and their village and his family were wiped out. Fortunately, his father managed to escape to Palestine.

"What we know here, and what the Holocaust Museum, and those marchers in Skokie, and what Fritzie did is taught us that the way to make sure things never happen again is to keep telling people what they experienced, and what they knew, and that is the way to reconciliation, and that is the way to make sure that we can make the future better," she said.

After escaping the horrors of the Holocaust, Fritzshall came to Skokie in 1946 after the end of World War II, and joined her father – who had come to America before the Holocaust to provide money for his family abroad and who worked for Vienna Beef, according to the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

Fritzshall went on to marry a U.S. veteran of World War II who had been a prisoner of war in the Pacific, and worked as a hairdresser, the museum recalled. She also became an avid Cubs fan.

Fritzshall was inspired to get involved in activism in the late 1970s, when neo-Nazis threatened to march in Skokie, the museum recalled. The horror prompted a group of Holocaust survivors to found the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois in 1981.

The foundation was first located in a modest storefront on Main Street in Skokie.

Fritzshall and other Holocaust survivors also persuaded Illinois Gov. James Thompson in 1990 to sign a Holocaust Education Mandate into law for all public elementary and high schools, the museum recalled. Illinois was the first state to do so.

In 2009, the Chicagoland survivors' realized a long-planned vision of a world-class educational endeavor as the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center opened in Skokie. Fritzshall served as its president beginning in 2010, the museum noted.

In speaking to Gerasole in 2020, Fritzshall also emphasized the ongoing need to combat hatred and antisemitism.

"When I came to this wonderful country, I never thought I would have to live and hear about anti-Semitism again," Fritzshall said in the 2020 interview.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said thanked Fritzshall and the Illinois Holocaust Museum for the work have done to memorialize survivors of "one of the most horrific atrocities known to man."

"Unfortunately we know that anti-Semitism is alive in our world, as is xenophobia and racism, and other forms of hate. The work that Fritzie Fritzshall and others have done to not only help us remember the horrors of the genocide of the Holocaust, but also serving as an opportunity for healing or bringing communities together, that is the work that we all must be about," she said.

In recent years from Pittsburgh to southern California, there have been deadly attacks on synagogues here in the U.S. and a rise in anti-Jewish rhetoric.

"Hatred has gotten strong and we need to stand up," Fritzshall said in 2020.

Fritzshall also expressed concern late in her life that the world would not remember the horrors of Auschwitz, and that the grounds where those horrors happened could be forgotten and allowed to decay.

This year, the museum is set to premiere a virtual reality experience called "A Promise Kept," where visitors can join Fritzshall as she returns to Auschwitz and tells the story of the promise she made to 599 women who helped keep her alive during the Holocaust.

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