The exhibition space for "The Journey Back" at the Illinois Holocaust Museum Credit: Emily Mohney

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 think of as a normal life, with work and marriage, a child and a home.    

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

Until she did.

Fritzshall was born in Czechoslovakia in 1931, and was 13 years old when Nazi occupiers forced her and her family first to a ghetto and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where her mother and two brothers were murdered. She became the youngest worker in a slave labor factory, survived a death march in 1945, came to America the following year, and tried not to talk about any of that for nearly four decades.  

In the early 1980s, when the Holocaust Memorial Foundation was beginning to collect videotaped testimony from survivors, Fritzshall’s son, Steve, who had learned not to ask her about it, urged her to participate. Make a tape and bring a copy home for me, he said. When she did, the floodgates opened. The starving women who worked in that slave labor factory had shared their tiny allotment of bread with her so that she, as the youngest, might survive. In the video made that day, she said she’d neglected her duty to tell their story.

And from then on, she did. In the hope that teaching about the Holocaust might keep anything like it from happening again, she never stopped talking about it.

Fritzshall died June 19, 2021, but that isn’t stopping her either.

“The Journey Back”
Free with museum admission, but accommodates just eight viewers at a time; advance ticket reservations, available at ilholocaustmuseum.org, are required for it and for the hologram.

At the time of her death, she’d been president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center for more than a decade, and you can still see and hear her telling her story there. She’s one of the rotating witnesses in the museum’s interactive “Survivor Stories” hologram exhibit (where viewers really do talk with the dead). She’s also featured in the museum’s newest high-tech offering, “The Journey Back”—a virtual reality trip to Auschwitz that opens to the public January 27.

The new VR experience consists of two 15-minute films. A Promise Kept follows Fritzshall from the idyllic Czechoslovak/Hungarian countryside of her childhood to the Auschwitz compound in Poland. Don’t 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, and then to two brutal labor and starvation camps in Austria—Mauthausen and Ebensee.

A chance to preview the two films brought me to the museum last week, and reminded me that, after numerous visits, I still haven’t mastered its two-building layout. That’s no accident: the permanent exhibit, which moves chronologically through the Holocaust, from pre-WWII life in Europe through the war years to liberation, is a deliberately disorienting maze that 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 website, it’s a building in which every detail—from the columns outside to the number of windows in the Hall of Reflection and the shape of the theater space—has meaning.  

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

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

Auschwitz (like other Nazi concentration and death camps) has largely been swept clean; what you see of it in this film, beyond the infamous gate and railroad tracks, is mostly bare ground, fencing, and antiseptically empty buildings. In part because of that, the VR technology, with its 360-degree views and clunky goggles (remember 3D?), is arguably less efficacious for this museum’s storytelling than the amazingly effective interactive holograms. But that’s a high bar. 

And when Fritzshall arrives at Auschwitz, we see that the place comes alive for her—the sights, sounds, deathly chill, filth, and stench of it rushing back. She recalls, in the film, that the mass latrine, a single room filled with long open benches studded with one hole after another, was both an example of Nazi strategies to degrade and dehumanize the prisoners, and, ironically, a place of value to them. Because it was the only place where the guards did not follow them in, she says, it became a kind of hellish haven—the one spot in the camp where they were able to connect, embrace, communicate freely (even praying together), and affirm their humanity.