Stern and the Holocaust
Thursday, October 2, 2003
On this day in 1943, German Nazis ordered the arrest and deportation of all Jews in Denmark. Danish government officials, however, had secretly negotiated a deal in which thousands of Jews escaped by sea to Sweden, and the Nazis found only 284 of an estimated 7,000 Jews in Copenhagen.
Meanwhile, in Valley City, North Dakota, a clothing salesman had already saved more than 100 Jews from the Holocaust.
In 1903, 16 year-old Hermann Stern was an apprentice to a clothing merchant in Mainz, Germany, for which he received board and room, but no pay. When his mother’s cousin, Morris Straus, came from America for a visit, Straus saw in Hermann a good person to help him expand his clothing business back in Casselton, ND. He offered Stern a job and left behind money for passage.
Hermann’s employer refused to release him, but Stern left anyway, taking a ship from Hamburg to New York, where he caught a train bound for North Dakota.
Straus is said to have had a second motive for hiring Hermann Stern; he was looking for a potential husband for his sister-in-law, who was living in his home. Two years later, Straus’s gamble paid off when Hermann did indeed marry Adeline Roth. By that time, Hermann was also well on his way to becoming a full partner in the business, which now included a store in Valley City.
When Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany in 1933, Hermann wasn’t at first worried about his relatives in the old country. Like many German-Americans, he thought the stories of the Nazis’ persecution of Jews were exaggerated.
Back in Germany, however, Herman’s brother Gustav was getting more and more worried. He wanted his children to move to the U.S., and assuming his niece and nephew were simply seeking better opportunities, Stern readily obliged. When the children arrived, however, Hermann quickly learned the full extent of the Nazi persecution.
More requests came, and by 1936, Herman Stern was helping more and more people get to America. Stern urged his four brothers to leave Germany as well, but Gustav was the only one willing to leave.
By 1937, Stern was receiving dozens of appeals from distant relatives, many of whom he had never met. He used his personal savings, then pledged the assets of his business and even his home to satisfy the State Department’s requirements for sponsoring “one more relative.”
Hermann Stern found a surprising ally in his efforts. North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye had been loudly campaigning for American neutrality in the war, but over and over Nye helped cut paths through the bureaucracy that threatened Stern’s efforts to get Jews out of Germany.
By 1941, Stern had sponsored nearly 125 men, women and children, including another of his four brothers. But before the cases of his brothers Moses and Julius could be completed, America had entered the war, trapping the two men in Europe. Sadly, both died in the Holocaust.
The Stern Family has continued to run Straus Clothing – now a successful store in Southwest Fargo and an on-line business.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm