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Fritzie Fritzshall -- Holocaust Survivor, Activist, And Illinois Holocaust Museum And Education Center President -- Dies At 91

SKOKIE, Ill. (CBS) -- Fritzie Fritzshall survived Auschwitz, and made it her life's mission to tell her story so the world would never forget the horrors of the Holocaust.

Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, has died. She was 91 years old.

As the museum remembered her on its website, Fritzshall devoted her life to fighting hatred and prejudice and speaking out to make the world a better place.

When Fritzshall was a young teenage girl, the Nazis occupied her hometown of Klucharky, Czechoslovakia and deported her along with her mothers and two brothers to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, the museum points out. Her mother and two 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. She came to Skokie in 1946 after the war 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, the museum recalled.

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, the museum recalled.

"We said we came to a free country, and we don't need to be afraid to say we are Jews," Fritzshall was quoted by the museum. "We don't need to be afraid to walk out on the street and be identified. We are not wearing the yellow armbands any longer."

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 antisemitism again," Fritzshall said in the 2020 interview.

But 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.

Past Illinois Holocaust Museum Board of Trustees Chair John Rowe was quoted by the museum: "Fritzie was asked by her fellow prisoners to be their messenger. She fulfilled that hope in the ultimate way through this museum. But Fritzie was so much more than a messenger, so much more than a survivor. Her life has been a blessing to her family and all of us who loved her. She was a genuinely great lady."

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the museum, was quoted: "Fritzie wanted us to know that there are good people everywhere. Even in the most difficult, threatening, and horrific circumstances, goodness might be present. She spent much of her life teaching children and adults that we all need to be like the stranger who saved her life on the train that day at Auschwitz. 'One person can make a difference' she always said." He continued, "Fritzie was that person who made a difference for many. 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."

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