Today around 9AM Central Time, my friend and mentor, Henry Oertelt, died at age ninety at his home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Henry had recent cancer treatments and started having increasing complications, weakening and needing more and more help with day-to-day care.
Today, coincidentally, is also the International Day of Remembrance and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated this day as International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHRD), an annual day of commemoration to honor the victims of the Nazi era. Every member nation of the U.N. has an obligation to honor the memory of Holocaust victims and develop educational programs as part of an international resolve to help prevent future acts of genocide.
For the past few years, I have been privileged to get to know Henry and his family. I first heard about Henry when I met his granddaughter, Corey, in St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, of all places. Soon, I read his book. It changed my life and I felt a pull that I still can’t explain towards the material – his personal journey and its message. I wrote him a letter to ask if I could option his book, An Unbroken Chain, My Journey Through the Nazi Holocaust. Today, we have started a non-profit for Holocaust Education, Six Million for Six Million, and are developing a feature film with the same name.
Henry’s name comes up daily as I regularly discuss my project with potential investors, colleagues, family and friends. I even ended up joining the Phoenix Holocaust Survivor’s Association at their request. Many members ask me if I am a second generation survivor – why else would I show up? At one point, I said to him, “Henry, I might as well call you my adopted grandfather,” and he laughed and agreed.
Henry’s life story will do more than just inspire and educate young audiences. It will remind adults to be grateful for the blessings in their own lives. No matter what our daily challenges bring, there’s nothing that can put things in perspective more than considering the plight of a Holocaust Survivor who had everything, even their identity, stripped away from them.
Henry is an inspiration simply by the fact that he rebuilt his life, and had a family, including 3 great, grandchildren, Haylie, Taylor, and Chance. He and his wife, Inge, lived the American Dream in St. Paul, where they originally immigrated from Berlin. He told his story to groups at schools, churches, and organizations in the Minnesota, Wisconsin and Dakotas and earned three honorary doctorates from St. Olaf, South West State University and St. Cloud State University. He didn’t originally want to recount his story, but after one teacher persisted he relented, and continued – for forty years.
Oertelt was a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s (JCRC) Holocaust Education Commission, a recipient of JCRC’s “Volunteer of the Year” award, as well as recipient of the distinguished “Eleven Who Care” honor from KARE 11-TV in Minnesota. On April 23, 2006, St. Paul, Minnesota, honored him with the key to the city and proclaimed “Henry A. Oertelt Day.”
Additionally his story is one of only five highlighted on USC Shoah Foundations’ online exhibit, Surviving Auschwitz.
His family is asking that in lieu of flowers you donate to his local temple, Congregation Beth Israel, or Six Million for Six Million, to help make the movie about his life story.
I am forever grateful that I got to know Henry and his family and I am honored to carry on his mission of Holocaust Education and teaching acceptance and hope, for the rest of my life.
We wish Henry Oertelt a very happy 90th birthday, today. For four decades he has been sharing his story, An Unbroken Chain, with students and organizations in his community. It is our honor and privilege to adapt his book into a feature film. Mazel Tov!
Henry Oertelt is pictured with one of his 3 honorary diplomas, this one from St. Olaf.
Last night, I attended the fundraiser at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Chandler, Arizona. The mayor of Chandler, Boyd Dunn, opened the event by asking for a moment of silence in regards to the tragic earlier incident of the day in Tucson, where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several staffers and constituents were shot at a community event.
He then went on to share about how the new Holocaust museum will bring economic activities to the city of Chandler, “a city of tolerance,” he said. We were told that several other cities were interested, but the mayor championed the project big time and ultimately won.
85-year-old Holocaust Survivor, Helen Handler, then addressed the crowd of about five hundred, where she described her experiences as a Hungarian teenager in Auschwitz. Although I’ve heard Helen speak on more than one occasion, a new takeaway struck me when she shared that most of the time, she couldn’t even communicate with others in the camps – they were all from different countries with different languages and backgrounds.
The new museum will eventually be built on a piece of land next to the East Valley Jewish Community Center, after significant dollars are raised. Steve Tepper, the head of the East Valley JCC, next awarded Helen with a plaque and told her that a grant her in name would fund a group of underprivileged students to take a trip to Israel to attend Yad Va Shem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel.
We then saw, Rene & I, a film about twins who survived experiments in Auschwitz. If you think this film would be disturbing, you are right. However, it was also amazing to see the resilience of the main characters and how six years after the Holocaust, they were united and taken into the same adoptive family and lead as normal and productive lives as anyone, even though, Irene, the female twin ended up with MS, likely as a result of her childhood experiences in the camp.
Chompies hosted a delicious reception after the event, and I finally got to meet one of the owners. Donald Tucker, a former US Marshall for the district of Arizona, has a new book out called The Two Edged Sword about his life and is also working on a mystery with a main character named Wendy, after his wife. We were introduced by another local author, Marsha Fine, and her husband Dr. Skip. Marcia told me she is working on a revised edition of her inspiring book, Paper Children. Driven by cataclysmic world events, the story encompasses the lives of three generations of women.