In 1993, Steven Spielberg directed and co-produced the movie “Schindler’s List,” making the country aware of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who is credited with saving the lives of more than 1,200 Jews in the mid-1940s.
However, it was a North Dakota businessman, Herman Stern, who began building his own list a decade earlier, enabling more than 140 Jews to escape Nazi Germany, saving most of them from almost certain death.
During the early 1920s, Stern’s clothing stores in Casselton and Valley City were doing very well. In 1927, he received a letter from his nephew, Julius Stern, who was living in Germany. Julius Stern wanted to come to America and work for Stern at the store.
After working a short period of time for Stern, Julius Stern left after his request to be made a partner was denied.
Julius Stern then went to Chicago. After accumulating a number of bills, he wrote to Stern asking to be bailed out of debt. In return, he would work for his uncle in Valley City in order to pay him back. Julius Stern was not able to adjust to the conditions at the Stern household and returned to Germany in 1930.
By the early 1930s, the effects of the Great Depression were being felt in North Dakota, especially the rural areas where farmers also were affected by poor crops because of lack of rainfall. This greatly affected the Straus stores operated by Stern in LaMoure and Carrington.
In 1932, he received a letter from a teenage niece, Klara Stern, in Germany. She wanted to come to America because she could not find work in Germany. Stern could not help because of the economic situation of his business at the time. Also, visas were more difficult to obtain because the government wanted to be certain that all aliens would be financially able to take care of themselves once they arrived in America.
On Jan. 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, and conditions for the Jews in that country rapidly deteriorated. Eventually, Stern realized reports from Germany must be true.
Klara Stern’s situation had not improved, and in 1933, her younger brother, Erich Stern, was dismissed from school because he was non-Aryan. He was also unable to find work. Their father, Gustav Stern, wrote to the consulate in Stuttgart requesting visas, but the consulate refused to help.
Gustav Stern asked his brother for help. Stern asked Gov. William Langer and Sen. Gerald Nye to help Klara Stern. Both men promised to send letters of support to Stuttgart, and Nye also contacted immigration officials in the State Department and the Department of Labor.
Everything appeared to be in order, but the process dragged on until Stern got Klara Stern enrolled at Valley City State Teachers College. In early December 1933, she received a visa.
Having learned the difficult and time-consuming process for obtaining visas, Stern was able to procure a visa for Erich Stern in the late fall of 1935. Klara and Erich Stern lived with Herman and Adeline Stern, and Erich Stern worked part-time at Stern’s store. The siblings then moved to Chicago.
Stern believed he had to do everything possible to help other Jews flee Nazi Germany.
In 1935, his nephew, Julius Stern, wrote asking for his assistance in getting out of Germany. Well aware of the trouble he had with Julius Stern in the past, he hesitated to bring him back to Valley City. When he realized exactly how bad conditions were in Germany, he relented, but basically told his nephew to stay in New York.
Aiding Stern in all of this was Nye, who continued to push visa requests with the State Department.
When a young German Jew named Leon Hayum learned that Stern had helped relatives to leave Germany, he sent him a letter requesting assistance. Stern was impressed with Hayum’s letter and helped him and his new bride obtain visas. He then employed Hayum as a tailor in his Valley City Straus store. Next, he assisted the parents of Klara and Erich Stern in obtaining visas.
By 1937, Stern was getting requests for help from a variety of people. It wasn’t easy to help. Stern had to line up employment and sponsorship for the requests. America was still reeling from the Depression and unemployment was very high. To make matters worse, a number of those asking for visas did not speak English. Stern asked business acquaintances in Chicago, New York, North Dakota and Minnesota to assist him. Many, but not all, agreed to co-sponsor some of the immigration requests.
In 1938, Stern turned to the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigration Aid Society. In turn, for their help, he agreed to act as one of its organizers. He spoke to Jewish groups throughout North Dakota and Minnesota. By mid-1938, Stern had helped bring about 100 German immigrants to the U.S.
By the fall of 1941, three brothers remained. He was working with the State Department to get Adolf, Julius and Moses Stern out of Germany, along with the wives of Adolf and Julius Stern. Finally, in late November, visas arrived for Adolf Stern and his spouse.
However, two weeks later, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the U.S. was at war with Germany. There now was no way to get the others out, and Moses and Julius Stern, along with his wife, died in concentration camps.
During and after World War II, Stern remained active in running the successful chain of Straus Clothing stores in North Dakota until his semi-retirement in the late 1950s.
Stern died on June 20, 1980. On May 21, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City will begin showing an exhibit incorporating Herman Stern’s rescue of Jewish refugees.
(Reach Curt Eriksmoen at firstname.lastname@example.org.)