Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Goodbye Steffi



It is with a heavy heart that I write about my relatively new, but dear friend Steffi Oertelt Samuels, the wonderful daughter of author and Holocaust Survivor, Henry Oertelt. Steffi, (age 62) died yesterday, May 17 in Minnesota after a lifetime of defying the odds. Different doctors said that she was terminally ill with a brain tumor but (like her father) her strong will and positivity gave her the strength to live a remarkably full life. She was surrounded by her family and close friends including her grandson, Chance, (pictured above w/ Steffi) children, Paul and Corey, her husband, Ed, and her father and mother, Henry and Inge.

Steffi and I met in the summer of 2008 while my husband and I were living on our boat, Plan B, in the Virgin Islands. She, Ed, and Corey came aboard for an afternoon sail. We had a wonderful time getting to know each other and it was at this time that I told her I wanted to adapt her dad’s book, An Unbroken Chain: My Journey Through the Nazi Holocaust. Steffi helped write the book and was very involved with Second Generation Survivor education efforts in the Minnesota area. She also wrote the accompanying study guide to the book.

I told Steffi that I didn’t really know how to convince them to let me adapt their book into a film, other than giving them a draft of my first screenplay, Plan B. A few months later, I handed off a copy to Corey which apparently made the rounds in the Samuels/Oertelt family because I ended up getting a call from Henry in August that summer, accepting my offer to option the book and work with their family.

Just a few weeks later, Steffi invited my husband and I to join her and her family at her lake home in Minnesota. We brought a video camera and prepared to get some interviews with the family during our first official visit. I didn’t know what to expect and I’m sure, neither did they.

We arrived as relative strangers but we left feeling like a part of the family. Steffi was a caring hostess with a great sense of humor. I marveled at the way she listened intently and enjoyed her daughter’s photos and stories from a recent vacation. The Samuels/Oertelts took us under their roof (and tent, another story) and we ate, drank and shared stories about their family, both light and very, very heavy (yes, I’m still referring to all three: the drinks, the food and the stories!). We shot a ton of footage and captured some special moments: the family singing and then playfully debating, the prayer over wine on Shabbot, riding around the lake in their boat, and hearing Henry and Inge share some of their stories that perhaps, even they, their children and grandchildren, hadn’t heard before. It was a very special time.

I next saw Steffi last fall when I flew out to attend Henry’s 3rd honorary doctorate ceremony at St. Olaf College. It was a very solemn day, as if we knew that it might be one of the last times some of us would see each other again. And yet that night, we went out to the local deli and enjoyed ourselves as much if not more than we did on Plan B.

Steffi wanted badly to participate in the making of An Unbroken Chain: the Movie. She sent me several emails when I started the project, and later, verbally shared some feedback and direction. She had written her own life story, and told me that she wanted me to read and advise her on next steps. She never had a chance to send it.

Those who know Steffi might know that she spent her life defying the odds: she was given a death sentence early in her life for a brain tumor, and spent the rest of her years both ignoring and battling the prognosis. This was definitely one of the reasons she took a position at the American School in Germany and against her parents’ wishes, moved herself and her family there to both learn about her family and culture, and perhaps, to escape from the mundane, as she might have felt she had less time and much more to lose than others who might postpone this decision of a lifetime.

Perhaps Steffi’s experiences in Germany helped us relate more: I too, made the choice to go against my family’s wishes and make some sacrifices so that I could travel and expand my world, I know she too, had no regrets. After about 7 years living abroad, she and her family returned to the U.S. forever changed, especially Steffi, having bonded with some of her German family and gaining a unique perspective into her father’s homeland and unfortunate history.

I spoke to Steffi and Ed recently after I moved to LA. I wanted her to know that I was still taking very seriously my commitment to carry on the An Unbroken Chain. We exchanged only a few words, but I think we were both very happy to have reconnected and hear the other’s voice.

I will continue the Holocaust education efforts that Henry and Steffi began, and look forward to continuing this journey and passing on the lessons of on An Unbroken Chain through our non profit, Six Million for Six Million, for the rest of my life. Steffi was actually named for Henry’s cousin, Stephanie, who was a talented performer who was murdered in Germany by the Nazis. Maybe there’s no coincidence that we share the same name.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

AZ Humanities Council's Border Film Festival




We attended the Border Film Festival at Tempe Center for the Arts this past weekend. Thank you to filmmaker and ASU professor Paul Espinoza (pictured) who showed 5 powerful films relating to the Mexican/U.S. border’s history all of which were his own productions. The first film, The Lemon Grove Incident, was filmed 25 years ago. It was a combination of documentary and traditional storytelling via feature film. It recounted the story of the Mexican American community's response to a 1930 school board attempt to create a segregated school for their children leading to America's first successful legal desegregation case. The Mexican parents hired an attorney and actually sued the local PTA. One of the local ten-year-old boys was the plaintiff. A post-film discussion facilitated by Dr. Luis Alvarez, of the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Alvarez was not only a visiting historian– he turned out to be the grandson of Dr. Robert Alvarez, the ten-year-old boy the case had centered around.

It was amazing to see how closely the story paralleled a twelve year old Jewish boy’s school experiences in our project, An Unbroken Chain: My Journey through the Nazi Holocaust. (We have optioned this book and are currently fundraising for the feature film, as you may know.) The logic of the PTA and their weak arguments about Americanization, English, and overcrowded schools immediately reminded one of Nazi Germany’s Nuremburg Laws.

In one of the memorable courtroom scenes, the plaintiff’s attorney demonstrates that the school board had never researched nor had no real grasp of what language the Mexican kids actually spoke. They were planning to send Mexican kids to the Mexican school “to learn English.” The lawyer helps the courtroom learn that not only were 95% of them United State citizens but that some of them grew up speaking English and didn’t even understand Spanish!

The second film was a documentary of the history of the Mexican American War. It was a good reminder that in fact, California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, were, of course, part of Mexico before we, the U.S., stole the land away in that war.

Thank you to Paul and the Arizona Humanities Council for a terrific and timely event!