Samuels continues family mission of Holocaust Education

A Cardiff woman has made a donation of family artifacts to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., and Corey Samuels is urging others to do the same.

Samuels made the decision to give the photographs, ID cards, patches and more artifacts connected with her grandfather Henry Oertelt — a survivor and Holocaust lecturer — to the museum after they were nearly lost in a flood.

“People who have survivors in their family should know that this option is available,” Samuels explained. “The curators at the Holocaust Museum were great. It was a really personal experience. She spent a whole afternoon with us, talking about my family’s story and looking at the different artifacts. But people can also just ship the items.

“There are things in there like a Hitler Youth armband and some pretty gruesome liberation pictures, that I wouldn’t have ever felt right disposing of, but I couldn’t think of where they would be appropriate to be displayed either. So this was a perfect opportunity.”

The donation is the culmination of the family’s five-decade mission to educate others on the Holocaust and keep Oertelt’s incredible story alive. Also part of the journey is the short film “Becoming Henry” that Samuels made with Stephanie Silverman Houser in 2014.

Oertelt was liberated by General Patton’s Third Army during the Flossenburg death march in April 1945. He arrived in St, Paul, Minn. in 1949 and was, at first, reluctant to tell his story.

“Part of the story that’s in the short film is the story of how he, after surviving, in Minnesota met the commander who freed him from a death march, at a cocktail party. Just a crazy chance event,” Samuel said. “And around that time, there was a university professor who kept asking my grandpa over and over again if he would come speak to his class. He was finally convinced to come talk to the class one time, and it led to this 40-year (stint lecturing about his experiences and the importance of tolerance, political involvement and confronting hatred).”

Oertelt wrote a book “An Unbroken Chain: My Journey through the Nazi Holocaust” on which the movie is based, was given three honorary doctorate degrees — from St. Cloud State University, South West State University and St. Olaf in Minnesota — and received a key to the city of St. Paul on April 23, 2006, which was named “Henry A. Oertelt Day.”

Oertelt’s daughter (who is Samuels’ mother) Steffi Oertelt Samuels, co-authored the book, created a teacher’s guide and also spent most of her life dedicated to Holocaust Education.

After spending their lives educating and sharing experiences, Steffi Oertelt Samuels and Henry Oertelt died less than a year apart, Samuels in 2010 and Oertelt in January of 2011.

Corey Samuels, however, had already joined the family mission a few years earlier when a chance meeting with Houser in the Virgin Islands set the film in motion in 2008.

Houser wrote and produced the film, which is nine minutes long and played at nine different film festivals. Fortuitously, its final stop was the La Costa Film Festival in September. Samuels, who had lived elsewhere for most of her life, had moved to Encinitas less than two years earlier.

“I had friends who were working as volunteers and mentioned a film festival,” Samuels said. “One of those friends encouraged me to submit the short film, but what was cool was that by the time the reviewer saw it, they said they had already seen it somewhere else. It was neat that they wanted it for the festival.”

The film was also co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and will live on by being shown at that facility.

Close friends after working together on the film, Samuels and Houser were in Florida a few months ago for a fundraiser with the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s South Florida Business and Professional Advisory Committee, which has made a commitment to rescue the evidence of the Holocaust. At that event, Houser told her that a suitcase of Samuels’ mother and grandfather’s writings and artifacts that they had used in the filmmaking had nearly been lost in a flood at Houser’s Ft. Lauderdale home.

“She came to me and said our family was going to have to figure out what to do with these artifacts and, at the same time, we happened to attend this event for this institute and it just seemed perfect,” Samuels explained. “For my family overall, this gives us a beautiful way to sort of wrap up the story that my grandfather and my mother have been working hard to keep telling, and to know that it is saved somewhere.

“As my mom knew she was not going to be around much longer, her literal last wish was ‘Please remember to keep my writing, keep my part of the story.’ It turned out that (the museum) considers the testimony, both of her and my grandpa, that’s written in the speeches they delivered, to be part of the record. I feel like if my mom knew that her actual writing was in there, she would be so excited and proud.”