SKOKIE, Ill. (AP) - Fritzie Fritzshall gazed up at the illuminated wall and scanned the rows of victim names engraved in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, when one suddenly jumped out: Bella.
Bittersweet memories flashed before her of the aunt who took care of her at age 13 when they were prisoners at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Her mother's sister hugged her each night and reassured her things would someday be all right.
"She saved my life in Auschwitz," Fritzshall recalled, standing in the "Room of Remembrance" at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. "If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be here."
Fritzshall, who lost her mother and both brothers at the camp, is among thousands of local Holocaust survivors whose solemn stories echo throughout the 65,000-square-foot facility opening Sunday.
The $45 million museum houses survivor testimonies and artifacts including a Nazi-era rail car, an original volume of the Nuremberg war crime trial transcripts and photographs.
The facility has unique architecture; half of the building is black and the other half is white. Visitors enter in the dark half and leave through the light, a purposeful journey museum organizers intended. The inside of the museum has an industrial feel with steel and concrete and many of the exhibits have narrow walkways.
"It's more than a powerful walk through a terrible place in history," said museum executive director Richard Hirschhart.
The museum's mission is to help survivors heal, prevent future atrocities and tell the Holocaust story through narratives in a place rich with Jewish American history.
"It's important to have the museum in Skokie because it all started in Skokie," Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster said about the north Chicago suburb of about 67,000 people.
Skokie was once home to thousands like Elster, who moved to the area in the 1950s following World War II. He was drawn by affordability, a lack of restrictive convenants on housing and the promise of good schools.
At peak in the 1970s, historians estimate somewhere between 30,000 to 40,000 - nearly 50 percent - of Skokie's residents were Jewish; up to an estimated 7,000 were Holocaust survivors.
"There was a kinship, there were people like us," said Elster, 76, whose videotaped testimony appears in the museum. "We were not different."
Elster lost his grandparents, parents and 6-year-old sister in concentration camps. He described harrowing experiences of being an
orphan in Poland who scrounged for food and was stowed away for two years in a couple's attic. After arriving in the U.S., he had a difficult time fitting in and didn't start sorting through his past until the late 1970s.
That was when Skokie gained international attention as neo-Nazis
threatened to march through the community. The march was eventually
called off after pressure from activists and lawsuits, but the events ignited a spark among survivors.
Several started the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. They began telling their stories, many for the first time.
"My past haunted me for almost a lifetime," said Elster who wrote the book "I Still See Her Haunting Eyes," about the last time he saw his sister. "We realized that this could happen again, this could happen here. It was time to really speak up."
Though Skokie still has a large Jewish population - Jewish delis and synagogues pepper a main thoroughfare - the estimated number of
Skokie Holocaust survivors has dwindled to 1,000 to 2,000. There are about 10,000 Holocaust survivors in Illinois.
Museum organizers, including Fritzshall and Elster, say the dwindling number of survivors is the reason the museum, funded by a $6 million grant from the state and private donations, is needed.
"The museum to me is what I am here to do," Fritzshall said. "It has become my life and the life of many survivors."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)