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Archie Ingersoll, Published March 13 2014

ND honors businessman, civic leader Herman Stern, who helped scores of Jews to escape Holocaust

FARGO - Michel Stern is the last living member of a group of more than 175 Jews who escaped the Holocaust and came to America with the help of his great-uncle, Herman Stern.

As a young boy, Michel Stern and his brother, who lived in Paris, hid under a canvas blanket as they were smuggled out of Nazi-occupied France on a bicycle. Six months later, in 1941, his family received visas to come to the U.S. thanks to his great-uncle.

Around the same time, the Nazis began to round up thousands of Parisian Jews who were never heard from again.

“If there were no Herman Stern, I wouldn’t be here today,” Michel Stern, 77, told a crowd Thursday at the downtown Radisson Hotel here.

The lunchtime gathering was held to recognize the late Herman Stern, a North Dakotan businessman and civic leader, as the 40th recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the state’s highest honor.

“He did a lot for us,” Michel Stern said of himself and the other Jews rescued, “but he did a heckuva lot for the state of North Dakota, as well.”

Herman Stern, the youngest of eight children, was born in Germany in 1887. He came to America at the age of 16 to work at Straus Clothing in Casselton, a store established by his cousin, Morris Straus. Herman Stern became manager of the store in 1907, and three years later was manager of the store in Valley City and stayed there for 70 years, acting as a driving force in the company.

Straus Clothing once had shops in LaMoure, Carrington, Grand Forks, Jamestown and Devils Lake. The company’s Fargo store, run by Herman Stern’s grandsons, John and Rick Stern, remains open at 3223 13th Ave. S.

As a Valley City merchant, Herman Stern founded in 1924 the Greater North Dakota Association, now the Greater North Dakota Chamber, and became the organization’s first president. He also spearheaded a fundraising effort to build a home for the North Dakota Winter Show, a crop and livestock expo that opened in 1937 in Valley City and continues to draw thousands each year.

“Herman Stern embodied that pioneer spirit of people taking part of their own destinies and working together to make things better,” said state Supreme Court Justice Dale Sandstrom, a friend of the Stern family. “When Herman Stern got involved, things happened and things were accomplished.”

Herman Stern was a leader in the Boy Scouts for more than 60 years and received the group’s Silver Buffalo award for distinguished service to youth. He started the United Way of Barnes County and was a consultant to the U.S. Small Business Administration. He died in 1980 at the age of 92.

“He was the first to step up and take action and the last to accept any credit,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple said. “His vision and values have become part of the fabric of what makes our state what it is today.”

A portrait of Herman Stern, which will hang in the state Capitol, was unveiled Thursday, and the governor presented the Rough Rider award, a bust of Roosevelt, to Herman Stern’s family.

In accepting the award, John Stern spoke of the work his grandfather did to save the lives of relatives, friends and friends of friends from the Holocaust. He recalled an interview in which his grandfather was asked what those refugees owed him.

“They don’t owe me a thing,” Herman Stern replied.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734