At 95, Guy Stern Keeps Look­ing For­ward

At 95, Guy Stern keeps look­ing for­ward — and back.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Ju­lia M. Klein

It might have been yes­ter­day. Guy Stern, now 95 and direc­tor of the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of the Right­eous at Michi­gan’s Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Cen­ter, re­mem­bers with painful clar­ity the day he al­most saved his fam­ily.

Eight decades ago, Stern, the el­dest son of a Ger­man Jewish fam­ily, had re­ceived the sin­gle af­fi­davit of sup­port that a ma­ter­nal un­cle, a baker in St. Louis, was able to pro­vide. Be­fore his em­i­gra­tion from Hildesheim, Ger­many, his par­ents had tasked the 15-year-old with get­ting the rest of his fam­ily out of the coun­try. That meant nav­i­gat­ing com­pli­cated bu­reau­cratic re­quire­ments, in­clud­ing ob­tain­ing af­fi­davits cer­ti­fy­ing that his par­ents and two younger sib­lings would not be­come U.S. gov­ern­ment de­pen­dents.

One day in 1938, while hitch­hik­ing to his job as a bus­boy at St. Louis’s Jef­fer­son Ho­tel, Stern got lucky: He was picked up by a “fab­u­lous­look­ing car,” whose wealthy Jewish owner, hear­ing Stern’s heart-wrench­ing story, of­fered to pro­vide the nec­es­sary af­fi­davits.

Stern was one of nearly 2,000 Ger­man-born Jews who worked in U.S. mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence dur­ing World War II. They be­came known as the Ritchie Boys, be­cause their spe­cial­ized train­ing was con­ducted at Mary­land’s Camp Ritchie. Ac­cord­ing to Bruce Henderson’s book, “Sons and Sol­diers,” the Ritchie Boys were in­te­gral to the even­tual Al­lied vic­tory — post­war records

in­di­cate that they gath­ered nearly 60% of cred­i­ble Euro­pean in­tel­li­gence.

Stern par­tic­i­pated in the Nor­mandy in­va­sion and nar­rowly averted a Ger­man mas­sacre dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Bulge. He in­ter­ro­gated nearly 1,000 Ger­man pris­on­ers of war and also helped com­pile and eval­u­ate the re­sults of other in­ter­ro­ga­tions, re­ceiv­ing the Bronze Star for his ef­forts. Henderson’s book de­tails some of his most col­or­ful ex­ploits, in­clud­ing im­per­son­at­ing a “Mad Rus­sian” com­mis­sar to strike fear in the hearts of Ger­man pris­on­ers, and es­cort­ing Mar­lene Di­et­rich on a tour of the prison where Ger­man POWs were con­fined.

Af­ter the war, Stern ma­jored in ro­mance lan­guages at Hof­s­tra Univer­sity and earned a doc­tor­ate in Ger­man lit­er­a­ture from Columbia Univer­sity. He has since had a dis­tin­guished ca­reer as both an aca­demic and an ed­u­ca­tional ad­min­is­tra­tor. He’s taught at Deni­son Univer­sity in Ohio, the Univer­sity of Cincin­nati, the Univer­sity of Mary­land and Wayne State Univer­sity (where he was se­nior vice pres­i­dent and provost). He also has held five guest pro­fes­sor­ships in Ger­many.

The hon­ors have flowed, too, in­clud­ing the Grand Or­der of Merit of the Fed­eral Repub­lic of Ger­many in 1987, and two years later the Goethe Medal. In 1998, Stern was in­vited to de­liver an ad­dress to the Ger­man Par­lia­ment in Bonn to mark the 60th an­niver­sary of the Kristall­nacht pogrom. This past Jan­uary he re­ceived the French Knight of the Le­gion of Honor medal for his role in the lib­er­a­tion of France.

In his cur­rent job at the in­sti­tute, which he has held since 2004, Stern said he fos­ters re­search on “the mo­ti­va­tional fac­tors that lead peo­ple to al­tru­is­tic deeds” and also tries to “in­still such ide­al­ism in young­sters” through ed­u­ca­tional and pub­lic out­reach pro­grams. Af­ter be­ing di­vorced and wid­owed, he is mar­ried to his third wife, the Ger­man au­thor Su­sanna Pion­tek, who is 54.

Stern’s ca­reer choices have tied him in­ex­orably to both Ger­many and his past. His orig­i­nal aca­demic plan was to pur­sue com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture, but his pro­fes­sors at Columbia en­cour­aged him to spe­cial­ize in Ger­man lit­er­a­ture and cul­tural stud­ies.

Many of his friends, par­tic­u­larly the Jewish ones, asked him, “Af­ter all that hap­pened in Ger­many, don’t you want to di­vorce your­self from it?”

“I thought about it,” Stern told me. But he de­cided: “If I fol­low that ad­vice, I will do ex­actly what the Nazis want me to do — and that is, sort of a self-am­pu­ta­tion.” He re­sented, he said, the no­tion that “post facto the Nazis could de­prive me of what I re­ally could do — I wasn’t go­ing to do them that fa­vor.”

His Army ser­vice also in­oc­u­lated him against “mak­ing uni­ver­sal judg­ments” on any group of peo­ple. Even among Ger­man POWs, he en­coun­tered “some ab­so­lutely ad­mirable peo­ple,” in­clud­ing, he said, “a cou­ple who were so much in the demo­cratic spirit that they would be the fu­ture of Ger­many. And to lump them in with the SS troop­ers would have been wrong.” He added: “I could con­demn the Ger­mans as well as any­body else, but that’s not my way of op­er­at­ing or think­ing, or my phi­los­o­phy.”

The last con­tact Stern had with his fam­ily was a brief, bland let­ter, sub­ject to Nazi cen­sor­ship, writ­ten by his mother from the War­saw ghetto in the sum­mer of 1942. Af­ter the armistice, Stern re­turned to his na­tive Hildesheim to try to trace his fam­ily’s fate. A fam­ily friend — a cus­toms in­spec­tor who, un­like other neigh­bors, had re­mained sup­port­ive of the Sterns dur­ing the Nazi years — urged him not to hold on to hope.

But how could he not? There were re­ports of peo­ple, thought dead, who were re­united with rel­a­tives years af­ter the war. In the early 1960s, back in Europe on Ful­bright and Bollinger Foun­da­tion grants, he was able to pore through newly opened Ger­man archives. Only then did he be­come fully con­vinced that his en­tire fam­ily had per­ished, ei­ther in War­saw or at Tre­blinka. “Hope dies hard,” he told me. Stern’s grant-funded re­search, which led to his first book, was on Efraim Frisch, who edited a Ger­man in­tel­lec­tual mag­a­zine called the New Mer­cury in the early 20th cen­tury. He found that many Ger­mans who had once been close to Frisch “cut off their con­nec­tions to him” dur­ing the Nazi era. When Stern in­ter­viewed them, “they took me as a sur­ro­gate for Efraim Frisch. They said, ‘Well, we couldn’t do any­thing else.’”

Such self-ex­cul­pa­tion was com­mon among Ger­mans of the post­war pe­riod. “You know that joke?” Stern said. “How many Jews lived in Ger­many dur­ing the Nazi pe­riod? The an­swer is 60 mil­lion — be­cause every Ger­man res­cued one.”

But Stern, de­spite ev­ery­thing, re­mains more ide­al­ist than cynic, even if his ide­al­ism has been tem­pered by his­tory.

When Stern spoke to the Bun­destag about Kristall­nacht, call­ing at­ten­tion to the role of silent by­standers, his au­di­ence in­cluded in­vited high school stu­dents. After­ward, one of them told Stern how sorry he felt about the hor­rors and mis­takes of the past. “But that’s not me — that’s my grand­fa­ther,” the stu­dent said. “So how should I re­act to this?”

Stern says he pon­dered the ques­tion. And then he of­fered an anal­ogy. Nei­ther he nor his an­ces­tors, he told the Ger­man stu­dent, had any in­volve­ment in the U.S. en­slave­ment of black peo­ple. “And yet if I say I’m an Amer­i­can,” he told him, “I have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to see, as far as I can, that the right thing is done to­day.

“I said, ‘You are not guilty of any­thing. But you call your­self a Ger­man?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘In that case, you bear re­spon­si­bil­ity that to­day you see to it that there’s never a re­cur­rence.’ ”

De­spite ev­ery­thing, Stern re­mains more ide­al­ist than cynic, even if his ide­al­ism has been tem­pered by his­tory.


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