Herman Stern was a Jewish retailer in North Dakota who rescued over 125 Jews from Germany in the late 1930s. Eighty years later, his local descendants and local descendants of some of the people he rescued are bringing a new documentary about his life and work to DC.
One of the only Jews in Valley City, North Dakota, Stern was a civic leader in every nonreligious organization in his community. He led the local Boy Scouts council; he founded the Community Chest and the North Dakota Winter Show; and he was a leader in the Rotary Club and the Masons.
His local senators were famous isolationists, but they were also friends and customers, and they helped him get visa approvals through the State Department to bring a few relatives to North Dakota from Nazi Germany. These relatives told their relatives and friends that a man named Stern could help them get visas to the United States; their relatives and friends wrote to Stern, and he helped more and more people, By the time the U.S. entered the war, Stern had brought more than 120 people out of Nazi Germany, at a time when few others succeeded in doing so.
Although he did not speak much about this work during his lifetime, perhaps because he was not able to persuade all of his brothers to come to the U.S. before the war, his children and grandchildren told the story. A historian in Minnesota wrote a book, “You Have Been Kind Enough to Assist Me,” about his work, and he was posthumously awarded the “Rough Rider Award,” the highest civic award given by the state of North Dakota. Art Phillips, a filmmaker in North Dakota, read about this award and decided to make a film about Herman Stern and his work bringing Jewish refugees to North Dakota to show in state schools.
One of Stern’s sons left North Dakota, and his descendants are Jewish; his other son stayed in North Dakota and kept the family business operating until 2014 (when it was the oldest family business in that part of the United States); that son’s descendants are Christians. Jewish and Christian Stern family members, as well as some descendants of those Herman Stern rescued, live in Montgomery County, Maryland, today, and they have worked together to arrange a DC showing of this new movie about Herman Stern.
The film will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 18, at 5 p.m. on Capitol Hill, at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 212 East Capitol Street NE, Washington, DC 20003. This is the church Stern’s Lutheran great-granddaughter Erica Stern attends, and the building is shared with the Hill Havurah Jewish community. A panel discussion after with Phillips and film historian Carl Oberholtzer and a reception will follow the screening.
The screening is open to the public; donations will be solicited for HIAS (which assisted Herman Stern) and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (which partners with HIAS today).
More information about the film is available at https://www.themissionofhermanstern.org/.
By Elizabeth Weber Handwerker
Elizabeth Weber Handwerker lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her great-grandfather and Herman Stern were cousins, and her great-grandmother and Herman Stern’s wife were also cousins, who grew up together in North Dakota.