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Off the Record: The human face of the Holocaust

Note: In January 2004, Holocaust survivor Henry Oertelt of St. Paul visited New Ulm to tell the story of his survival to New Ulm High School students.

With the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp this week, I thought it would be appropriate to rerun this column I wrote at the time.

Mr. Oertelt died in January 2011, one of the many witnesses and survivors of the Holocaust whose story should still be told.

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New Ulm High School students had a rare opportunity Wednesday to learn about history from someone with first-hand knowledge, someone who experienced it. I hope the students are able to make a personal connection with their speaker, because the subject matter, the Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany, is one that should never be simply relegated to the pages of a history book. I hope that in listening to their speaker, a Holocaust survivor, that the most ghastly episode in 20th century history will become real for them.

Their speaker was Henry Oertelt, a man with whom I made a personal connection many years ago. When I was a small child, growing up in St. Paul, Henry Oertelt and his family were our next-door neighbors. It was a wonderful neighborhood, a small one bounded by a couple of busy streets on two sides, and by the St. Paul Academy campus on the other two. In that one square block we had a whole world for a kid. We had a grocery store on the corner, whose owner lived two doors down the block. We had about 20 kids of a variety of ages (and 25 percent of them were little Sweeneys). We had an undeveloped wooded area across the street that belonged to St. Paul Academy, with a little spot dug out under the chain link fence so we kids could sneak in and play Robin Hood or Last of the Mohicans or whatever we could come up with.

We also had stay-at-home mothers in every home keeping an eye on the kids. It was a little village, filled with great neighbors, but the best of them all were the Oertelts. They were a kindly couple with German accents. They had two children who were best friends with my older sister and my younger sister. They had a dog, Sniffy, that we played with, and they had a crab apple tree in the back yard that grew those hard, sour little apples that my mom could turn into the best jelly ever made. And Mr. and Mrs. Oertelt, like my parents, were kind, loving people who didn’t mind pesky little kids running around.

One of my earliest memories is of a hot summer day when I was three or four. My father and Mr. Oertelt were out in the yard talking. I was doing what little kids do best, hanging on to my dad’s leg. I noticed, as they talked, that Mr. Oertelt had a tattoo on his forearm, a long number. You didn’t see too many tattoos in those days.

Being a polite child I didn’t interrupt their conversation, but later on I asked my father, “How come Mr. Oertelt has a number tattooed on his arm?”

My father looked at me with a hard, flinty stare and he spoke to me in that low, intense whisper that fathers use when they want you to know that what they are saying is very important, and that you should listen and obey them, or they will have to kill you.

“Don’t you ever — EVER — say ANYTHING to Mr. Oertelt about that tattoo! Do! You! Understand?”

And I, hearing the wings of the Angel of Death flapping overhead, said the only thing I could say — “Okay!”

I never did ask Mr. Oertelt about the tattoo, and after a while I forgot all about it.

Several years later, in high school, I was watching a television documentary about the Holocaust, and the death camp at Auschwitz/Birkenau. The narrator was telling how the Nazis, with cold, bureaucratic, dehumanizing efficiency, kept track of their prisoners by tattooing serial numbers on their forearms. There was a film clip of the gaunt prisoners passing before some clerk, pulling back their sleeves to show their tattoos as the clerk wrote their numbers down in a large record book.

I suddenly remembered, with a sick sense of horror, where I had seen such a tattoo, and realized why my father had so sternly told me never to mention it to Mr. Oertelt.

“Oh my God. Mr. Oertelt went through the death camps!”

To this day, nothing I read or see about the Holocaust, none of the statistics, pictures and films, give me that sick feeling that I get when I think of how this good man, this friend of my family, my neighbor, suffered unspeakable horrors and managed to survive in a system that was bent on killing him and everyone like him.

A few years after that, Mr. Oertelt began telling people about his tattoo, and about the Holocaust. He has been telling his story in lectures and in his autobiography, for the past 30 years. It is a brave, and a very important thing he is doing, because there are a lot of people spewing a bunch of nonsense about how the Holocaust never really happened, that Zionists made it up to bolster their desire to create the nation of Israel, or to impugn the character of the German people. The fact that the Third Reich kept meticulous records about what it was doing and how many people it was killing in its camps expose the revisionists for the liars that they are. But as Adolf Hitler proved, a lie, repeated often enough, will be believed.

I hope the students who listened to Mr. Oertelt on Wednesday will remember him when they think about the Holocaust, or if they hear someone say that it never really happened. I hope that he will become for them, as he has become for me, the human face of the Holocaust.

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