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Holocaust survivor Henry Oertelt, shown at St. Cloud State University' in 2008, died on Thursday at age 90.

David Brewster, Star Tribune

Holocaust survivor shared message of tolerance with thousands

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • January 30, 2011 - 7:36 PM

In his decades of speaking publicly about the Holocaust, survivor and Minnesotan Henry Oertelt often ended his lectures with this saying:

"If you absolutely have to hate, hate HATE."

The message touched thousands, including one young woman from Thief River Falls, Minn., who was so moved that she had the words translated into Hebrew and tattooed down her spine.

When Oertelt entered his final decline, a hospice chaplain sent to visit asked whether he was the same man who had spoken to a class the chaplain and his wife had attended 25 years before.

"That was one of the most influential classes we ever took," the chaplain said, according to Oertelt's granddaughter, Corey Samuels.

Oertelt endured a series of Nazi concentration camps before making his way to Minnesota, where he bore witness to those who did not survive and spoke up for tolerance and political involvement.

He died at age 90 on Thursday, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

A longtime resident of Little Canada, Oertelt was a Jewish 12-year-old in Berlin when Hitler came to power. He was 22 when, one night in 1943, he was given 15 minutes to pack one suitcase before the Nazis took him.

By war's end, he had seen countless atrocities: A dead man crammed so tightly among live prisoners in a boxcar that the body couldn't slip to the floor. Prisoners covered with sores from fleas and bedbugs. The stench of the smokestacks at Auschwitz and ash falling like snow on new arrivals.

"The worst thing I ever witnessed was children being taken away from their parents at Auschwitz," he once said publicly. "The kids were taken to the gas chamber."

Oertelt's mother died there too.

Oertelt and others were on a death march when they were liberated by U.S. troops in April 1945.

He came to the United States in 1949 with his wife, Inge, and their baby daughter. They moved to Minnesota, where Oertelt worked at a furniture factory before starting a career in insurance.

"For many years, he didn't speak or really tell anybody very much of anything, even his children," said his son-in-law, Edward Samuels.

Then a teacher persuaded him to tell his story, and he began speaking publicly -- to colleges, churches, community groups.

His ordeal was documented by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation Institute, now part of the University of Southern California. (Out of nearly 52,000 video testimonies, his is one of five stories featured on an Institute website that can be accessed at www.startribune.com/a161.)

He also wrote a book, "An Unbroken Chain: My Journey Through the Nazi Holocaust," that is now being developed as a feature film, said Corey Samuels.

That project, of which Samuels is an associate producer, is one way that she said her grandfather hoped to answer a question that was important to him:

"Who carries on the story when the survivors are gone?"

Despite the grim stories he shared with his audiences, Oertelt had a great sense of humor -- an attribute that he believed helped him survive the camps, Corey Samuels said.

"He really was a fun, silly father and grandfather. He liked to joke around and laugh a lot," she said.

Relatives remembered Oertelt as both musically and mechanically inclined. He also enjoyed spending time with his family at a small lake home. And, his granddaughter said, "He loved fishing, like a good Minnesotan."

Oertelt is survived by his wife; a son, David, of Bloomington; a brother, Kurt Messerschmidt, of Portland, Maine; four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Stephanie Samuels.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at Beth Jacob Synagogue, 1179 Victoria Curve, Mendota Heights.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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