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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 30 2013

Eriksmoen: North Dakota businessman’s help led to 140 lives saved

In 1993, Steven Spielberg directed and co-produced the movie “Schindler’s List,” making the country aware of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist credited with saving the lives of more than 1,200 Jews in the mid-1940s.

However, a North Dakota businessman, Herman Stern, began building his own list a decade earlier that enabled 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 wanted to come to America and work for Herman at the store.

Herman was opening new men’s clothing establishments in LaMoure and Carrington and needed help. After working a short period of time for Herman, Julius tried to convince his uncle to name him a partner.

Herman declined the proposition, telling his nephew he needed more experience. Julius then set out for Chicago.

After accumulating a number of bills, Julius wrote Herman asking to be bailed out of debt. In return, he would work for his uncle in Valley City to pay him back.

Julius was not able to adjust to the conditions at the Stern household and returned to Germany in 1930.

In 1932, Stern received a letter from a teenage niece in Germany, Klara Stern. She wanted to come to America because she could not find work in Germany.

Herman could not help because the Great Depression and poor crops caused by dry conditions hurt his Straus stores in LaMoure and Carrington. Visas were also more difficult to obtain because the government wanted to be certain all immigrants were financially able to take care of themselves.

Conditions for Jews in Germany rapidly deteriorated when Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933. Klara’s situation had not improved, and in 1933, her younger brother Erich was dismissed from school because he was non-Aryan. He was also unable to find work. Their father, Gustav, wrote to the consulate in Stuttgart requesting visas, but the consulate refused to help.

Gustav forwarded the correspondence to his brother Herman. Herman requested the assistance of Gov. William Langer and (North Dakota) Sen. Gerald Nye in acquiring a visa for Klara.

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.

In early December 1933, Klara received her visa. Herman procured a visa for Erich in late fall 1935. Klara and Erich lived with Herman and Adeline Stern, and Erich worked part time at Herman’s store. The siblings then moved to Chicago.

In 1935, Julius wrote to Herman asking for help getting out of Germany. Herman hesitated to bring him back because of past troubles with Julius but relented when he realized how bad conditions were in Germany. Herman told his nephew to stay in New York. Aiding Herman was Nye, who pushed visa requests with the State Department.

When a young German Jew named Leon Hayum learned that Herman had helped relatives leave Germany, Hayum wrote Herman. Herman helped Hayum and his wife obtain visas. He employed Hayum as a tailor in his Valley City Straus store. Next, he helped Klara and Erich’s parents obtain visas.

“By 1937, Stern’s success in acquiring exit visas had spread. He began to receive letters from distant relatives, as well as complete strangers, asking for work affidavits in the United States.”

Stern had to line up employment and sponsorship for these requests. Stern asked business acquaintances in Chicago, New York, North Dakota and Minnesota to assist him on this. Many, but not all, agreed to help.

Stern turned to the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigration Aid Society for assistance in 1938. In return, he agreed to act as one of the group’s 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.

Stern helped most of his close relatives and many others leave Nazi Germany. By fall 1941, all but three brothers remained. He worked with the State Department to get Adolf, Julius and Moses out of Germany, and the wives of Adolf and Julius. Visas arrived for Adolf and his spouse in late November. Two weeks later, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the U.S. was at war with Germany. There was no way to get the others out. Moses, Julius and Julius’ 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. The North Dakota Winter Show in Valley City named a building after him and he was inducted into the North Dakota Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, but little mention was made of his efforts and success in securing visas for more than 140 Jews in Germany.

Stern died on June 20, 1980.

In 1997, Terry Shoptaugh, a professor and archivist at Minnesota State University Moorhead, wrote an article about Stern for North Dakota History titled “You Have Been Kind Enough to Assist Me,” which received the Editor’s Award. In 2008, the article was expanded and published in book form and was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. On May 21, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in New York City, will begin showing an exhibit incorporating Herman Stern’s “rescue of German Jewish refugees.”

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.