Monday, April 27, 2009

"This book has really garnered my attention..."

Over the past 40 years, Dr. Oertelt frequently received letters from both students and teachers, alike. Here's excerpts from one he received recently from Daniel Moddes, a teacher at Pequot Lakes High School.

"Dear Mr. Oertelt,

I am currently reading An Unbroken Chain and I must say that it was really garnered my attention. As a history teacher, I often come by books dealing with the Holocaust, so when I checked out your book from the local library, I must admit that I was expecting the same basic, yet saddening information that one would come across in other books.

However, you write in a fashion that glues the personal with the factual; the emotional with the rational (or irrational, too.) Furthermore, your book is written in a fast flowing style that most students can comprehend, and that is to be congratulated. Students can visualize themselves in your shoes you define and explain key concepts succinctly, but effectively."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A tribute to Holocaust Remembrance Day

A writer in Minnesota posted this story about Henry today:

As a tribute to Holocaust Remembrance Day, I interviewed Holocaust survivor Henry Oertelt whose story is being made into a feature-length film. This is his story.
Growing up as a Jew in Berlin was not particularly dangerous, Henry Oertelt said, but his life changed at the age of 12 when Hitler came into power.

Now, 85 years old, Oertelt tells a story he has told hundreds of times to thousands of people, a story where “all these things are based on hate,” he said.

Oertelt is also one of the 52,000 survivors documented by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute. The University libraries are in discussion with the foundation to license access to the full collection this winter.

Barred from attending school for being Jewish, Oertelt was a furniture designer and builder apprentice for four years. Soon after finishing his training, Oertelt did forced labor duty, constructing roads in Berlin.

In June 1943 Oertelt and his family were given 15 minutes to gather their belongings and leave their home behind.
“It was as simple as that,” he said.

That day, Oertelt began a journey to Theresienstadt, the first of five concentrations camps he lived in until the end of the war.
Theresienstadt was different than other camps, Oertelt said, because the Nazis put it on display for the world to dispel rumors of mass killings.

The administration scheduled concerts, operas and theater performances, Oertelt said, to hide the misery of the camp.
“We didn’t know what we had more of: lice, fleas or bedbugs,” he said.

While others worked hard labor, Oertelt designed furniture, saving the few calories he could to survive.

One day, Oertelt was shoved into a railroad car with other deportees and taken to another camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, which Oertelt called, “the killing machine.”

Camp workers separated the old and the sick from the healthy, Oertelt said, and “children were taken away first.”

Chosen for the healthy line, Oertelt continued to the showers, but was forced to stand in the cold night air, naked.

A finished painting by Rwandan sisters Alice Tuza and Floriane Robins-Brown depicts their cohesive experience of genocide.

His hair was shorn and he was tattooed with “B-11291,” which still marks his left arm.

Oertelt was later moved to a camp in Flossenbürg where he would stand in role call for hours on end. He survived a grueling death march and was liberated by American troops.

Oertelt weighed 82 pounds.

For the last 35 years, Oertelt has made it his mission to bear witness to those who perished in the Holocaust, including his mother, who died at Auschwitz. He published the book “An Unbroken Chain” in 2000 which chronicles his life as a persecuted Jew. His story is now being made into a movie.

For more information on Henry Oertelt and his film, please visit:

Monday, April 20, 2009

You never really know what impact your words may have on some people!

As  you know, I have been lecturing at universities and high schools for almost 40 years. I know that, over the years, I have had some impact on a good number of students and teachers at those institutions of teaching and learning. I know that for a fact, because of the numerous letters and profound comments I have received over the years.

While I was talking to a great extent about my personal experiences, I always stressed the all-important recognition, that a greatly unopposed and widely supported Hatred was the culprit of dehumanizing and killing millions and millions of human beings. This was not only the fact during Hitler's Nazi régime. Regretfully, it is even going on as we speak, in many parts of the world today. Almost always I ended my lectures by reciting a little verse of my creation :

"if you absolutely have to hate, hate HATE." I usually left a print-out of it with the teachers, who often copied and distributed it to the students.

About three years ago I was invited to come to Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls, a town in northwestern Minnesota. The wonderful music teacher, Darcy Rees, was practicing with a huge choir for a performance of the "Butterfly Songs". (They are from the book "I Never Saw Another Butterfly". These are a collection of poems that were written by children in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt/Terezin. Only two or three of these children survived the camp.) Jeannie Brindley-Barnett, a Minneapolis composer, set some of these poems into beautiful and soulful music. These songs were performed many times not only in the US , but also in the Czech Republic, the former Czechoslovakia, where this concentration camp was located. Jeannie and her musician/conductor husband, Steve Barnett , were there to assist and and to help with the technical side of the performance.

I was asked to relay my story to the students, and again, finished off with my little verse. I have been speaking at many smaller towns in the country areas of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas, and was always aware of the fact that the vast majority of people that were facing me, had never seen or ever had any personal contact with a Jewish person before. So it was in this town of Thief River Falls.

Just a few days ago I received a call from Darcy Rees telling me that something extraordinary had occurred with her daughter Tevia. Tevia, age 18, came home for the spring break from the University of Fargo, North Dakota, telling her that she had a surprise for her. She told her that my little verse made such a lasting impact on her, that she wanted to do something with this important message. This wonderful Christian young woman decided to look up a rabbi in Fargo to have my message translated and written out in Hebrew. With this she went to a tattoo artist who tattooed it on her back along the spine - in Hebrew letters! 

What a story!


Monday, April 6, 2009

Jewish National Fund and Sun Devils for Israel

Recently, I attended a breakfast for the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Scottsdale. They had a packed ballroom full of supporters. Our speaker was Dr. Jonathan Adelman, Senior Felow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, Washington, D.C. He was also the dissertation manager for Dr. Condoleezza Rice and a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies in Denver. JNF was fundraising for a world class facility for mentally challenged adults in Israel.

I was seated at a table with a new group from Arizona State University called Sun Devils for Israel. Andrew Gibbs and Shauna Tasa, two students, decided to form this group earlier this year after attending an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Conference in DC for college students. Andrew went with AIPAC on an 8 day Israel political activism trip and on the plane ride home, he created Sun Devils for Israel. They already have 155 members on Facebook. Their goal is to achieve a non-partisan pro-Israel community at Arizona State University through the outlets of activism, advocacy, and education. For more information, join the Sun Devils for Israel Group on Facebook.

I was really impressed with their dedication. Andrew has also accepted a summer internship with AIPAC. Good luck to Andrew and Shauna with their efforts. As for JNF, a Phoenix representative, Cathy and I had been talking about initiating JNFuture in Phoenix. There are some other cities who have built successful chapters and we are watching their efforts to gage what will work here.