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Holocaust Remembrance Day

Holocaust survivors help viewers experience the camps firsthand, via virtual reality

Opening Jan. 27 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago, ‘The Journey Back’ puts participants in the narrators’ shoes as they hear their tales of suffering and survival

  • The virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy/ Emily Mohney)
    The virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy/ Emily Mohney)
  • Fritzie Fritzshall at the arrival ramp to Auschwitz in a scene from 'A Promise Kept,' one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)
    Fritzie Fritzshall at the arrival ramp to Auschwitz in a scene from 'A Promise Kept,' one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)
  • A scene from 'A Promise Kept,' one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)
    A scene from 'A Promise Kept,' one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)
  • George brent at the men's barracks in Auschwitz in a scene from 'Don't Forget Me,' one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)
    George brent at the men's barracks in Auschwitz in a scene from 'Don't Forget Me,' one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)
  • A scene showing the slave labor tunnels at the Ebensee concentration camp from 'Don't Forget Me,' one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)
    A scene showing the slave labor tunnels at the Ebensee concentration camp from 'Don't Forget Me,' one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)
  • Fritzie Fritzshall at the women's barracks in Auschwitz in a scene from 'A Promise Kept,' one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)
    Fritzie Fritzshall at the women's barracks in Auschwitz in a scene from 'A Promise Kept,' one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)
  • The virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy/ Emily Mohney)
    The virtual reality exhibition 'The Journey Back' at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy/ Emily Mohney)

NEW YORK — Every morning inside the barracks, 599 women each tore a crumb from their small bread rations and gave it to 13-year-old Fritzie Fritzshall, hoping the extra nourishment would keep her alive one more day. In return, Fritzshall promised that if she survived Auschwitz she would tell their story. She kept her word.

Fritzshall married and had a son and two grandchildren. She became a hairdresser and was a passionate Chicago Cubs fan. And she helped found the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago, where she served as its president until she died last June at 91. Along the way, Fritzshall told her story and the story of the women to students and educators, politicians and journalists.

Now she shares it in “A Promise Kept,” one of two films narrated by Fritzshall and fellow Holocaust survivor George Brent in “The Journey Back,” a virtual reality exhibit opening at the Chicago museum on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“We know you can have award-winning exhibitions, books and films, but there’s no substitute for building the kind of empathy that comes from getting to know another human being,” said museum CEO Susan Abrams. “These films allow for a personal and intimate connection between you, the viewer, and Fritzie or George. They build an understanding of our common humanity and help combat antisemitism and other forms of hatred and bigotry.”

Wearing a virtual reality headset, participants control their own 360-degree experience as Fritzshall and Brent, who narrates the second film “Don’t Forget Me,” guide them around the modern-day preserved concentration camps of Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Ebensee. Throughout, the survivors share what they endured during the Holocaust. They also share the various small ways people worked together to help them survive.

Two days after Fritzshall died, her grandson watched the film.

Fritzie Fritzshall at the arrival ramp to Auschwitz in a scene from ‘A Promise Kept,’ one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition ‘The Journey Back’ at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)

“It was surreal and powerful; I can’t really explain it. It honors her without being corny or voyeuristic or exploitative,” Scott Fritzshall said. “Perhaps most importantly the film shows what can happen when we don’t see others as fully human. It uses her story to not just show a terrible thing happened, but also as inspiration for what we can do today — to be an upstander, not a bystander, as she used to say.”

Fritzshall seized the opportunity to participate in making the film with the knowledge that the number of survivors are declining — by now all Holocaust survivors are older than 75.

“One of Fritzie’s greatest fears, and also of many survivors, is that their story will be relegated to a sentence in a history book: ‘They killed the Jews. The end.’ She worried that Auschwitz, a hallowed cemetery for so many, her family included, would not be preserved,” said Abrams. “Even though she didn’t live to see the final film, a huge weight lifted from her knowing it was made and that it will be exhibited.”

Escaping death’s clutches

Fritzshall was born to Herman and Sara Weiss in 1929 in Klyucharky — which was part of Czechoslovakia when Fritzshall was born, placed under Hungarian control in 1938, and is part of present-day Ukraine. Her father immigrated to Chicago and worked for the Vienna Sausage Company — but by the time Herman had the means to send for his family, the war had started.

In 1944 the Gestapo arrested Fritzshall, her mother and two brothers at gunpoint, and deported them to Auschwitz. Moments after stepping from the overcrowded cattle car onto the unloading ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Fritzshall was separated from her mother and two brothers, who were immediately sent to the gas chambers.

Fritzshall survived the initial selection partly because she lied about her age. At the time, children under 16 were immediately murdered, as were mothers with young children and the elderly. The age was later lowered to children under 14.

A scene from ‘A Promise Kept,’ one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition ‘The Journey Back’ at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)

Her aunt Bella promised Fritzshall’s mother she would watch over the teenager. The two were moved to a subcamp of Auschwitz where they worked as slave laborers in a factory. Every night Bella wrapped her arms around Fritzshall and assured her that the next day would be better. Every morning 599 bread crumbs were passed along to Fritzshall.

Toward the war’s end, while on a death march from Auschwitz (located in occupied Poland) to Germany, Fritzshall escaped into a forest and was liberated by Russian troops. In 1946 Fritzshall immigrated to the United States and reunited with her father in Skokie, Illinois. She married Norman Fritzshall, a Marine veteran who had been held by the Japanese as a POW.

Fritzie Fritzshall at the women’s barracks in Auschwitz in a scene from ‘A Promise Kept,’ one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition ‘The Journey Back’ at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)

Precious records

Although Fritzshall spent decades telling her story in schools and synagogues, filming “A Promise Kept” was an emotionally draining experience. It meant doing nearly 30 hours of interviews, including a trip back to Auschwitz-Birkenau to film on location.

“It wasn’t her first time back, but it was still really challenging for her,” said grandson Scott Fritzshall. “Of course she could stop [the questioning] at any point, but she kept going because this was her life’s work. It was the thing that drove her and she was able to go knowing she gave everything she could.”

Likewise, Brent, 93, didn’t hesitate when asked if he would tell his story. In his film “Don’t Forget Me,” Brent takes viewers on a journey back to Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and Ebensee concentration camps.

George brent at the men’s barracks in Auschwitz in a scene from ‘Don’t Forget Me,’ one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition ‘The Journey Back’ at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)

“I’ve spoken about my experience countless times,” Brent said in a Zoom interview with The Times of Israel from his home. “People need to see what happened. When they see the film, they are looking at the Jews of Europe. When they see my hometown they are seeing the last vestige of Jews in Central Europe.”

Brent was born in Téscö, another part of Czechoslovakia given by the Nazi regime to Hungary in 1938. His family was forced into a ghetto on May 21, 1944. Three days later they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in one of the last transports to the death camp. Brent, then just over 14, and his father were selected to work. His mother and 10-year-old brother were sent to the gas chambers.

“They were rushing us, beating us, yelling at us. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mother and brother taken away. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye,” Brent said.

After the war, the only known photographic evidence of the transport arrivals and extermination process inside Auschwitz-Birkenau was discovered by survivor Lili Jacob, who donated it to Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum, Yad Vashem, in 1980. The photographs were published in a book “The Auschwitz Album” that same year. In it are photos of Brent and his father.

A scene showing the slave labor tunnels at the Ebensee concentration camp from ‘Don’t Forget Me,’ one of the films showing at the virtual reality exhibition ‘The Journey Back’ at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy)

“I was amazed to find my father in the book. Then I found myself standing behind him, to the left in my underwear,” Brent said.

“The night before my father was shipped to Warsaw to clean up the ghetto, he found my barracks and came and said, ‘Be careful. Don’t forget me,’” Brent said.

An uncle helped Brent avoid future selections and ultimately the two were sent to a labor camp in Upper Silesia. Brent worked in the SS barracks doing chores for officers, including polishing their shoes.

By January 1945, when it was clear the Germans were going to lose the war, Brent was put on a coal train to Mauthausen in Austria. Then he was sent to Ebensee, also in Austria. He weighed less than 70 pounds when American soldiers liberated the camp on May 5, 1945.

After the war, Brent and his father were reunited in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1949. During the Korean War, Brent served in the US Air Force Reserves. After his discharge, he attended dental school at the University of Illinois and practiced dentistry until his retirement in 2011.

‘Standing’ inside the gas chamber

For “The Journey Back,” the museum partnered with award-winning digital entertainment companies Eyelash and 30 Ninjas, as well as the exhibition design firm Gallagher & Associates and award-winning documentary film producer Winikur Productions.

Eyelash creative technologist Chris Healer said virtual reality presented a unique medium to tell the two stories.

The virtual reality exhibition ‘The Journey Back’ at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Chicago. (Courtesy/ Emily Mohney)

“I’d read about the Holocaust, I’d watched films about it, but I didn’t really get it until I ‘stood’ inside the gas chamber,” Healer said. “Suddenly you realize that five feet to your left is a wall and five feet to your right is another wall. You note the ceiling feels a little short. Then you hear the narrator tell you they crammed up to 1,000 people in there and you start to understand what it might have felt like.”

Both Brent and Fritzshall were deeply involved in the project beyond telling their stories. During the editing process there was some discussion about whether to cut a scene in the latrines from the film.

Fritzshall was adamant. The footage had to stay.

“The latrines were of the utmost importance to her and other survivors,” Abrams said. “They offered a moment of reprieve; it was the one place the guards didn’t go. Even though there was no privacy and you were dirty and sick, it was where you could look someone in the eye, touch someone’s arm and remind yourself you are a human being.”

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