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Steve Hunegs, Published March 12 2014

Letter: Celebrate the life of Stern

Visiting the North Dakota state Capitol last winter on legislative business, I had the pleasure of admiring the portraits of those individuals honored as Rough Riders. I also learned about these great people by reading the stories outlining their lives and accomplishments.

I was pleased to learn that Herman Stern would be joining this gallery of exemplary North Dakotans as the 40th Rough Rider.

When I first learned about Stern a few years ago, I made it a point to ask North Dakotans or people with North Dakota connections if they had known him or knew of him. I was amazed by the number of people who did and the connection they had to Stern.

Some people discussed his work with the Boy Scouts. Others noted his support of Little League baseball. Men would proudly say they bought their first suit from him in Fargo or Valley City. Just about everyone would describe his endless energy for promoting the virtues of North Dakota and its business opportunities. The words were spoken with reverence, admiration and fondness.

Professor Terry Shoptaugh’s book, “You Have Been Kind Enough to Assist Me: Herman Stern and the Jewish Refugee Crisis” (Institute of Regional Studies, 2008), was my first introduction to Stern.

For yet another reason, as described in the Shoptaugh book, the designation of Stern as a Rough Rider is appropriate – particularly in this year in which we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).

The book tells the story of North Dakotans Stern and others, including Sen. Gerald Nye (1925-45), who saved as many as 100 Jews before World War II by arranging for their emigration to the United States in the teeth of State Department bureaucratic resistance and American anti-Semitism. Kristallnacht magnified the need for Jews to leave Germany and Austria, facing a world divided into “places where Jews could not live and Jews could not enter” in the words of Chaim Weizmann in 1937.

As Shoptaugh chronicles, Stern was indomitable in his efforts. He presided over the completion of mind-numbing immigration forms in the era of letters and telegrams. He completed affidavits of economic support for dozens trapped in Germany. He enlisted the assistance of Sen. Nye, who gave generously of his time, creativity and influence with American consular officials in Germany.

Stern even devised plans to create a Jewish farming co-op in Barnes County and bring German-Jewish physicians to North Dakota towns needing medical services.

The determination of Stern and Sen. Nye are even more remarkable in the face of indifference and endemic anti-Semitism in the years of the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt recalled the United States ambassador to Germany for “consultations” following Kristallnacht, but a bill to admit 20,000 German refugee children into the Unites States was strongly opposed and never enacted.

As people gather to break bread over lunch with the Greater North Dakota Chamber and Gov. Jack Dalrymple to celebrate the life of Herman Stern, it is good to remember this story of decency and deliverance centered in North Dakota.

Hunegs is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.