Recounting the Holocaust by podcast

Henry Oertelt records his story during several days of taping in St. Cloud for a podcast series on the Nazi Holocaust.
Courtesy of KVSC Radio

Update to this story: Henry Oertelt died on January 27, 2011. It was the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.


History is relayed in many forms: first-person stories, books, film, TV, radio. Until now, the iPod has not been much of a gateway to history.

That's changing, in part because of a Holocaust survivor in Little Canada, a criminal justice professor at St. Cloud State University, and a small group of broadcasters with the vision to use podcasts to bridge generations.

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The Oertelt
Henry Oertelt, flanked by his daughter, Stephanie Oertelt-Samuels, and his wife, Inge.
MPR Photo/Bob Collins

Henry Oertelt, 86, is one of the first -- if not the first -- Holocaust survivor to record his account in a series of podcasts by KVSC, the St. Cloud State University radio station.

The idea started with professor Barry Schreiber, who wanted Oertelt's story told after he heard it during one of Oertelt's public presentations in Elk River.

"We're quickly coming to the end of the lifespan of Holocaust survivors... and we're down to the teenagers of World War II now," Schreiber said. "I felt Henry's first-person life story was at risk of slipping through our fingers."

So Schreiber approached Jo McMullen-Boyer, the KVSC station manager, and their idea of history by podcast was born.

Late last year, Oertelt with his wife Inge, recorded hours of readings from his book, "An Unbroken Chain: My Journey Through the Nazi Holocaust." The KVSC staff added an original music score, edited the recordings, and produced the podcasts, allowing Oertelt's story to be downloaded via the Internet.

Oertelt was 12 when Hitler came to power in 1933. Soon thereafter, his teachers stopped grading his work.

"I noticed right away that Hitler's racial laws were already put in power against school children. I received my homework back without it being corrected," he recalled. "I talked to the teacher and he ignored me. I went down to the desk to show my teacher he didn't mark anything. He just sent me back to my seat. From then on, I noticed that Jewish students were supposed to be ignored. Even if the teacher asked the question and I had the answer, I would try like crazy, waving my hand, and he would never choose the Jewish students."

"We didn't set about this to be the first at doing something; we set about this because it was something that needed to be done. If it happens to be first in line, good."

He was eventually thrown out of the school choir, then demoted as captain of the soccer team, and finally kicked off the team.

The dehumanization process was gradual, Oertelt said.

"Jews could not go shopping unless it was between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. Jews would not be allowed to leave the city. Jews would be allowed to stay away from overnight; that was in preparation for the eventual pick-ups to be sent to concentrate camps, because it was mostly done at night."

Oertelt has told his story around Minnesota for over 40 years, mostly in speeches at colleges, high schools, and churches.

With his story being spread by podcast, he expects it will reach hundreds of thousands of people, and reach areas of the world where the Holocaust is now denied.

"It would be available all over the world. The story and my book will be listened to for many years to come, after I'm gone," he said.

But its immediate focus is as an educational tool in Schreiber's criminal justice class.

"Podcasting is a technology which education is trying to figure out how to use," Schreiber said. "It's certainly powerful, and it's a way to a student's ears and minds. But we don't know where, and we don't know how they're going to be using them. And that's part of our interest in tracking where the (Internet) hits are coming from."

Jo McMullen-Boyer, the KVSC stations manager, thinks the format has potential to reach a new generation which has adopted the iPod as the medium of choice.

"I really liked the concept of the iPod or podcast using MP3 players," she said. "It's such a personal choice, so I see students or whomever, whether they're in their office or listening on their MP3 player, they are creating that space. It's like when you read a book, you create those surroundings. So if you're hearing him describe things, you are making your mind create those pictures and those images in a very personal way."

She said she found no similar examples of Holocaust survivors on podcasts in a recent Internet search.

"We're reaching across traditional lines," Schreiber said. "We didn't set about this to be the first at doing something; we set about this because it was something that needed to be done. If it happens to be first in line, good. If it encourages others to do similar work, wonderful. But we wanted to preserve this extraordinary man's life story."

Oertelt's daughter, Stephanie Oertelt-Samuels, has also written a study guide and composed a choral reading honoring the children of Holocaust survivors.

The introduction and first four episodes of the series have been posted on the KVSC Web site. The entire series is expected to be available by mid-November.